Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Enchantment of the Faith

Part 3 of a Dialogue on Faith

It was one of those rare, perfect nights where the moon was nowhere to be seen, and the clouds had parted in the sky, making way for one of nature’s few sights readily visible to every man: a luminous, shimmering blanket of stars swept across the sky vibrant and stunning. It is one of the few sights that does not diminish, even with time.
The Christian and the skeptic both lay on their backs in a grassy field, peacefully gazing heavenward, lost in the wonder of it all.
The skeptic broke a long silence.
“What do you think the ancients thought about all of this?”
“All of what?” the Christian asked, all too ready for a conversation, as he felt that this was really the perfect time for it.
The skeptic’s hand swept a wide arc toward the heavens.
“All of it,” he explained. “After all, we’ve only just come to understand it all ourselves.”  
“Have we really? I would say that perhaps we’ve just begun to understand it,” the Christian clarified. “Though certainly we’ve made a good start.”
“I think that maybe you’re prone to underestimating just how much we’ve learned in the past century.”
“I don’t know that I do. I am well aware of the successes of science, but I think that maybe none of us has any idea just how much there is left to know,” the Christian explained. “But of course we don’t—the very nature of ignorance is that one never quite knows just how much more is left to be learned. But I would suggest that we’re really not much closer to the end of the matter than we were when we began.”
“I thought you might say something like that,” said the skeptic. “And I’m sure you would never admit the one truth that every legitimate scientist knows: the more we know about the heavens the less need we have for religion.”
“No,” answered the Christian, “you’re certainly right about that. I would never admit to it. Only rarely do I admit to things that aren’t true.”
“And this is why we will never make any headway in our discussions,” the skeptic, quite seriously. “You won’t admit something that is plain to every thinking person. You are blinded from the truth by your willingness to believe in myths and superstitions.”
“Just because I won’t admit to it doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to discuss the question,” said the Christian quickly, “but you must allow me to question the premises of your assumptions.”
“Fine. Question them.”
“When you say that everything we have come to know about science has left us with less need of religion, where is that assumption from? Did you hear it from within religion? I highly doubt it. This may be the sorts of things that skeptics speak about together, patting one another on the back, but it’s certainly not something you hear within the walls of a church. I don’t remember ever hearing murmuring within Christianity of how woeful it is that the world has so little need of our faith. Where is the fear that Christianity should be feeling?”
“It’s something one learns just by looking at the world,” the skeptic declared.
“Looking at which parts of the world?”
“The facts of the world. Don’t you agree that scientists are seeking naturalistic answers the questions of existence in the universe?”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“And don’t you also agree that, in some respects, science has done a remarkable job of explaining things that were previously though inexplicable?”
“A truly remarkable job,” the Christian admitted. “Science continues to move forward in thrilling leaps and bounds! In just a few hundred years we’ve explained gravity, motion, atoms and, most recently, the cosmos! I certainly would be lying if I said I wasn’t continually impressed.”
“Then you’re only a step away from admitting my point!”
“I do see how it would seem that way.”
“But of course you do! It is the most obvious point in the world! For centuries—for thousands of years, really—man has been inventing vast, intricate mythologies to explain the things that couldn’t be explained in any other way, and now science has solved the problem!”
“You’re speaking,” said the Christian, “of the ‘God in the gaps.’”
“Exactly. You’ve said yourself that science has answered questions that previously seemed unanswerable, and with every answer, religion is rendered more impotent.”
“That is true of some religions, certainly,” the Christian admitted. “For example, Ra is almost certainly unnecessary. Who has need for a sun god when we have a working understanding of nuclear fission? Likewise, meteorology means we don’t need a god of thunder; modern medicine means we don’t need any gods of healing.”
“I’m surprised that you would admit it so easily!”
“Hardly. I’m admitting that we don’t need the panoply of gods invented by men to explain things that could not be explained. I’m admitting that we don’t need mythology. It’s fortunate that I don’t worship any of the gods of mythology—I worship the Christian God, about which science has had absolutely nothing to say!”
“But it says everything! Science has opened up the secrets of the universe! We finally know just how great and awesome this universe is thanks to modern cosmology. Christianity is so focused on man and the earth, that has never been able to comprehend the universe! It’s sad, really.”
“It might be sad,” said the Christian, “if it were at all true. But it simply isn’t. Christianity may believe that there is something special about men, and something unique about the earth—and though scientists have done everything in their power to prove otherwise, both of these statements are supported by an overwhelming weight of evidence—but it has never had any illusions as to the vastness of the universe.”
“But how could a religion so narrowly focused on man possibly comprehend the universe?”
“Simply because Christianity has never focused on man! Or, rather, it was never supposed to. Other religions are about men, Christianity is entirely about God. And when the focus is rightly placed on Him, man is put in his place.”
“And what place is that?”
“A very odd place indeed! Man may be important—he is certainly the glory of creation!—but he is also humbled, because he is always seen in relation to his creator. It’s no wonder that King David wrote, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, or the sun of man that you care for him?’ Do you really think that in saying this David really misunderstood the insignificance of man? Or what about the book of Job? Remember that God asked, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?” In saying this do you really believe that He was somehow making something small of the heavenly constellations? Of course not! God’s message to Job—a message that continues to this day—is precisely the opposite: who are you to even begin to fathom the magnitude of my creation?
“But that’s just it! We have begun to fathom it! Maybe you’re right—maybe Christianity has always believed that the universe was great, but that only proves my earlier point! God was invented because man thought he would never be able to understand everything—but what a difference a few thousand years makes!”
“What a difference indeed!” the Christian acknowledged. “It has offered detailed explanations of quantum mechanics and general relativity.”
“Indeed it has.”
“And by them we know why planets revolve around stars, why we stick to the earth, and what kind of things we’re made of.”
“We can survey the paths of stars and galaxies and turn back the clock to discover just where they were in the past. We can follow it all the way back to the very beginning, where everything is compressed into a neat, infinitesimally small point, outside of even space and time.”
“And what could be more beautiful than that?”
“That is certainly impressive—but don’t you admit that this is where science ends?”
“Of course it is! That is the moment in which the laws of physics, as we know them, break down.”
“Right. It is the point, beyond which, we really can’t know anything. The point beyond which we need to have faith.”
“I’m sorry?”
“I’m sorry that it’s not appropriate scientific terminology, but it seems perfectly straightforward to me. There is a point, beyond which, we all, Christian and humanist alike, admit that we cannot empirically know something. It is the point, beyond which, faith is required of every man. Humanists have faith that there is some physics at work beyond the physics that we know; Christians have faith in God. The difference is not that of faith versus non-faith, the difference lies in the fact that I acknowledge and embrace my faith, while yours is hidden and ignored.”
“Even if that’s true, my faith is based on science,” said the skeptic.
“No,” the Christian responded, “your faith is based on the hope that somewhere, outside of what we can observe, there is something that is simply not God. My faith is in precisely the opposite. And, to be perfectly honest, I can’t help but thinking that my faith is considerably more rational. I don’t suspect that you would agree
“I certainly don’t.”
The Christian smiled.
“That only means the dialogue will have to continue.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Fears and Failures of Knowledge

Part 2 of a Dialogue on Faith

“Don’t think you can lecture me about what the world does and doesn’t need,” said the skeptic, quite coldly. “As far as I’m concerned, Christians long ago lost whatever credibility they may have gained through their ‘good works’.”
“I would never claim that Christians hold any sort of monopoly on “good works,” whatever you may mean by that. Still, I’m curious when you think we lost our credibility.” asked the Christian with concern.
“There’s no exact moment,” explained the skeptic. “But it certainly happened. I think it happened whenever you—that is, your religion—first became afraid of the world changing. Your religion saw the world threatening to leave you behind; everything was progressing while Christianity was staying the same, clinging desperately to old and outdated ways and beliefs. Your religion began to panic, for they still believed that the church had some relevance in the world; they continued to believe in miracles long after science had proven them wrong!”
“I’m sorry?” asked the Christian with a sort of laugh. “Science did what now?”
“Christians became afraid of science because science actively spoke out against the possibility of miracles, and they acted out of fear. That’s when you lost your credibility.”
“I’m sorry, but that may be the most absurd thing I’ve heard in some time! What does science have to say about miracles? Science can no more prove a miracle impossible than it can prove that there are angels dancing on pinheads! What sort of faith do you have in science, friend? You think that it took some great leap of science to tell men that it was impossible for a man to rise from the dead? Do you really think it took a mind like Newton’s to finally convince the world that, scientifically speaking, death is a very ultimate thing, and, scientifically speaking, one simply cannot rise from the dead? Or do you think the disciples were really more ready to believe in the resurrection because, somewhere in their primitive minds, they thought that maybe science hadn’t quite ruled out the possibility of it happening?”
“No—you don’t understand what I’m trying to say! In the middle ages-”
“I think I do understand it. I really do. I actually don’t think you’re wrong on every point, but you have to be careful not to say something ridiculous like science has disproven miracles.”
“But it has! Every bit of science tells us that there are unbreakable natural laws!”
“That much is more or less true, and yet, one can’t possibly believe in miracles without first believing in science.”
“How is that?” said the skeptic... skeptically.
“Because no one can recognize that a law is being broken if the law does not exist. Because the disciples really did believe that, scientifically speaking, Christ was dead and in a tomb. If they did not believe that, His resurrection may have been seen as an aberration, but it could not possibly have been recognized as a miracle. Only when one accepts natural laws can they possibly notice that they have been turned on their heads.”
“Fine, your point is taken. Now, you said that I wasn’t wrong on every point. Where do you agree with me?”
“You said that Christians have responded to science out of fear.”
“That much is obvious,” the skeptic said, nodding.
“Obvious and regrettable. I can admit that Christians have made many mistakes in their response to science. I deny, however, that this says anything at all about the truth or value of Christianity.”
“Of course it does! It says that yours must be a frail, pitiful religion if it is so afraid that science will prove it wrong.”
“All men have their frailties. Men have, on occasion, been afraid of science. Christianity, on the other hand, has never had reason to fear. That being said, I think we can both be thankful that the regrettable fear of some Christians—who might, indeed, have wished to slow or stop the progress of science—was never successful in slowing science.”
“Now that is absurd,” said the skeptic with some force. “Christians are perhaps more responsible than anything else for slowing science!”
“Really? I must have missed something. When did we do that?”
“You’d probably think it cliché if I brought up the trial of Galileo, but that’s the most obvious example.”
“Of course it is! It’s the most obvious because it’s so very unique! It’s the event that skeptics bring up because it is the only one! The persecution of Galileo is held up as some sort of symbol of a greater epidemic of persecution, when in fact it was, for the most part, a singular incident.”
“Now that is absurd! It is indicative of a certain stubbornness on the part of religion.”
“Yes, it is. Stubborn we certainly are. And I will defend the stubbornness of Christianity to my dying breath. But, really, the persecution of Galileo has really been blown comically out of proportion. It was a singular incident, in which the church wrongly considered heretical a man espousing a view that wasn’t even original, simply because a few of the clergy failed to understand that their scriptures were never intended to say anything about scientific things. Galileo has, ever since, been treated as a martyr, as if he was burned at the stake or fed to lions, when in fact he was asked to recant and placed on house arrest, where he comfortably pursued scientific matters until his death. If only all persecution was so benign!”
“Again, you’re missing my point! It is a matter of principle!”
“Yes, and on principle, the church was certainly wrong.”
“And it has remained wrong ever since! The church was doing everything they could to stop scientific progress.”
“Again, you’re quite wrong. The church, in that one instance, made a meager attempt to put a stop to that one theory—but, of course, they did not even slow it down, for the theory was accurate. It was too easily tested by other scientists, too numerous even for the church. Finally, the church was forced to accept the value of the theory, only to realize that, low and behold, it did absolutely nothing to weaken the faith! That is the real lesson in all of this, I think: from time to time Christians have come to believe that they ought to defend their faith from “progress”, and every time progress has continued unabated, and it turned out their faith had no need for such defense.”
“Then you think Christianity ought to embrace progress at last?”
“It really depends on what you mean by that. If you are asking whether or not Christianity ought to allow and encourage the pursuit of science and the expansion of knowledge, of course it should. If you are asking whether Christianity itself ought to change with the times, then my answer is very much no. The beauty of Christianity is that it has no need to change. It has no need to persecute scientists or philosophers because it stands in no danger from them. The truly interesting thing about the history of science is that it is continually disproving itself; one theory comes along and seems almost perfect, but then it is replaced by a new, even greater theory, sometimes simpler, sometimes more complex. Science is a serpent continually eating its own tail, but no matter how grand its theories grow, they have never said a word about Christianity. So much has come and gone in two thousand years—one really would expect that a book like the Bible would have become irrelevant. It simply hasn’t.”
“That is a very hopeful attitude,” the skeptic said hesitantly. “But it misses the reality of history.”
“And what reality is that?”
“The reality in which Christians have never stopped persecuting scientists!”
“Oh... so an alternate reality, then?”
“What? Of course not! Just look at this past century, where Christians have fought adamantly to destroy the theory of evolution!”
“Yes, of course,” the Christian said, nodding. “Evolution is the great modern example, and it does prove difficult, doesn’t it?”
“Hardly! The only things Christians hate more than evolution are evolutionists!”
Hate is a very strong word,” the Christian offered, “but your point is well-taken. It could hardly be argued that Christians have embraced the theory of evolution, but, aside from some minor incidents, their opposition could hardly be considered contribution. Is science really so weak that it cannot bear scrutiny? Has the theory really suffered so terribly because of Christianity?”
“But the scrutiny is not based on evidence? It’s based on ideology! That makes all the difference!”
“As much as I think your very premise is wrong—Christians have argued time and again based on evidence—couldn’t the same accusation be made in reverse? This is the strange phenomenon of our modern times—and the reason one must absolutely stop talking about the persecution of science by the church: science has, in this age, become the source of persecution rather than the subject.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the skeptic defensively.
“I mean that it is the church that is being attacked today, not science. Galileo, for all that is said about his row with the church, considered himself a Christian, as did the majority of European scientists up until very recently. He may have run afoul of the church, but he never would have considered himself an opponent of it—even after his “persecution” he never stopped being a Christian. Most scientific training throughout the middle ages took place in universities founded by the church. Newton and Pascal would be considered religious extremists today. Things have quite obviously changed. The reason it seems that Christians attack evolution is that they feel forced to react to the attack from evolution. I still hold that we have nothing to fear from any such theory, but it is difficult to convince others to simply accept such persecution.”
“You would really call it persecution, just because science has discovered something that opposes the Bible?”
“Not because it opposes the Bible, no. Evolution is different, not because it stands as a threat to Christianity, but because many of its proponents see it as a tool that might be used to destroy religion, and the scientific method is forsaken in lieu of bitterness. The subject of the persecution really has been reversed—though I would hardly begin to complain about it, as I think the truth will inevitably win out. I can only hope that Christians today will soon come to realize that, as always, the foundation of their faith is strong enough to weather any storm. We need not stand in the way of science, but we need not be swept away by it, either. One of the beautiful things about Christianity it has remained solid and steadfast while the thoughts and opinions of the world ebb and flow like the tide. Science may appear to run afoul of our beliefs from time to time, but that is only the product of fallible minds stumbling over themselves trying to obtain a firm grasp on the complexities of the universe. So they observe and theorize and retheorize, hoping that their ideas will have some lasting value. The ideas of the Christian, however, have remained true and consistent far longer than any scientific theory. We need only stand firm and wait for science to float back to the truth.”  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Atrocities and the Survival of the Faith

Part 1 of a Dialogue on Faith

“Do you really suppose Christianity is worth saving?” asked the Skeptic in perfect sincerity.                                “I certainly would,” the Christian returned casually, "if I thought it was in any danger."
“Any danger? But surely you can see that your faith is already dying!”
“Is it? I hadn't noticed.”
“Of course! How could it not be dying? Christianity is an ancient, ignorant myth, after all, and the only reason it has survived as long as it has is because it has been forced on children by parents and on people by their governments.”
“Well, that does sound pretty awful,” the Christian admitted. "When was the last time you visited a church?”
“Not since my childhood. Why would I?”
“Only to see if the situation was really as dire as you've come to believe. I find it funny that the people who are so adament about God dying and Christianity becoming obsolete are the people with the absolute least knowledge of what the church is doing.”
“I don't need to step into a church to know that your beliefs are outdated. Even if it is not happening already, it's only a matter of time.”
“I would agree with that,” the Christian said with a smile. “Only a matter of time before the world comes to realize that Christianity is not as vulnerable as it may seem. Only a matter of time before you all learn that God is not a being who can be killed.”
“But that’s absurd! What could possibly save your faith from human progress?”
“Only the knowledge that human progress is not always what it seems. No, that’s not a satisfactory answer, is it? Fine. Christianity will survive any attack simply because it is founded on truth, and it is more absolute than any truth to be found on the Earth.”
Science is based on truth."
“Hardly! Science is based on a truth that changes with every new observation. It is a worthwhile pursuit, to be sure, but it is foolish to mistake it for anything absolute.”
“Be that as it may, it takes some arrogance to believe believe that your truth is somehow greater than every other truth. There are plenty of things that people have believed to be true that turned out to be wrong, you know.”
“Oh, sure. And there are plenty of other things outside of Christianity that seem perfectly true, but the truth of Christianity is unique in that it is one of the few truths that is really worth living and dying for.”
All truth is important.”
“Truth is not some holy thing in and of itself. A thing may be true and still not matter in the least. A clod of dirt is perfectly true, but a person would hardly fight for it. There are some perfectly valid beliefs found through science, as well, but if I was ordered to denounce my understanding of the force of gravity or risk death, do you think I would hesitate for even a moment? Do you think that I would think twice about renouncing any scientific principle if my life depended on it? It may be a logical mistake to refuse to believe in electricity, but it there would be nothing fundamentally wrong with it. There are many things that are true but are not worth any great sacrifice, but in Christianity there is a truth that is so profound and so mysterious that men find the idea of sacrifice for its sake absolutely joyful! No, I can’t explain it, because it really is a profound mystery—and recognizing the mystery only draws me yet closer to those truths. That is why Christianity can’t be destroyed.”
“Anything can be destroyed.”
“It may seem like it, but Christianity truly can't, unless it is destroyed from within. What you don’t understand is that Christianity is a self-healing faith. It can recover from any wounds inflicted upon it because its wounds make it stronger. The world can do its best to create conditions that make it more difficult to be a Christian, but as soon as the world realizes that Christians continue to hold fast and remain joyful, all the work will be undone. We could be burnt at the stake or fed to lions and the world would have no choice but to ask why we were so willing to suffer. Blessed are ye who suffer trials of many kind for the testing of your faith produces perseverance. This truth was demonstrated explicitly time and again in the early church, and it has proven itself resoundingly true for two thousand years.”
“And what a two thousand years it has been!” the skeptic scoffed. “Two thousand years of bloody crusades and inquisitions! Two thousand years of putting men of science and philosophy on trial simply for asking questions—and more often than not for being correct! You say that you cannot be destroyed, but I say that no one has yet had the courage to truly try.”
“I thought you might bring up those things,” the Christian admitted.
“Of course you did. Why wouldn’t I bring them up? They’re proof that there is nothing particularly moral in Christianity.”
“Well, in that we certainly disagree.”
“You think there was something noble in the crusades?”
“Not in the killing, of course, but in that there was a time when man believed in something enough to cross a continent on foot; to leave their families and their lands and to accomplish something for God. That being said, the moment the first innocent blood was shed on the battlefield, whatever nobility was forsaken. The crusades, at least at first, represented something good, but resulted in something tragic—a stain against our own faith--a stain that will be remembered for as long as man cares about his own history.”
“A stain well-deserved. So you admit that religion has a tendency to kill.”
“I can’t speak for religion.”
“Then why are we having this conversation?”
“So I can speak for Christianity.”
“Then speak for it.”
“Christianity has murdered no one.”
“You’ve already admitted to the atrocities of the Crusades! Millions died!”
“I agree that it is atrocious whenever one man murders other, certainly.”
“And what of when Christians murder?”
“Then they have only proven themselves to not understand Christianity.”
“Nevertheless, it certainly happens.”
“No, I really don’t think it does. Don’t you see the fallacy of your argument?”
The skeptic tilted his head in curiosity.
“What fallacy is that? The fallacy of observation? Of historical research?”
“No, the fallacy of believing everything that a person says about himself. You’ve fallen prey to the fallacy of believing that every man who claimed to be a Christian is a Christian, and it is just as clear a fallacy as any. You believe that if a knight announces his intention to fight for God, and prays for God’s help in killing Muslims, then the blood ought to be on God’s hands rather than the knight’s. You believe that if Hitler offered some perversion of Biblical quotations before condemning Jews to the gas chambers then the Bible itself is somehow guilty of the crime, or if some nights claim to be on an errand from God then God is culpable for their actions. You believe these things even though a child could tell you that these actions are explicitly forbidden in the same book they claim as their guide! If a man wanders into your home claiming to be a plumber and, instead of fixing your pipes, robs you blind, would you forever blame all plumbers for the theft? If a man wanders into the Himalayas and dies because he is carrying a guidebook to the Swiss Alps and loses his way, would you condemn the publisher of that book, or would you rightly blame the man who believed that it would guide him? When you open up the Bible—when you look to the words of Christ and his Apostles—do you see anything that would suggest that the actions of the crusades are justified? Do you find that any murder is justified? Doesn’t the Bible clearly tell its readers that when we are acted against we ought to endure rather than retaliate? Aren’t you appealing to some baser instinct when you issue such condemnation? Aren’t you appealing to your own flight from the hound of heaven? In my experience, those who strive the hardest against Christianity are those who are at the same time fleeing from it in fear—fear of being transformed to some uncomfortable newness.”
“I’m not fleeing from Christianity,” said the skeptic, taking offense at the accusation. “People who run from things are willing to just leave them alone. I’m not leaving Christianity alone—I’m trying to destroy it.”
“A hopeless pursuit,” said the Christian confidently.
The skeptic shook his head.
“I think Nietzsche was right. God is already dead. Some are just forever lost in the past and haven’t realized it yet.”
“Or, on the other hand, maybe Nietzsche was wrong and you just haven’t realized it yet. After all, it’s been well over a century since he made that claim—you would think that we would see some signs of God’s demise, wouldn’t we?”
“More nations were progressive enough to rid themselves of faith in the twentieth century than ever before! I call that progress.”
“And you would dare accuse the Christian of atrocities?” the Christian allowed some emotion into his voice. “You thought the crusades and the Inquisition too bloody for your taste, and yet you hold the atheist regimes of the twentieth century up as pillars of progress? Don’t you know that the nations that ‘progressively’ sought to kill God are the nations that saw the most bloodshed?”
“Atheism can hardly be blamed for genocide. I’m an atheist and I’ve got no patience for murder. Denying the supernatural doesn’t make one evil.”
“But the atheist has no doctrines explicitly forbidding it, apart from those drafted by men—but men can be wrong.”
“Maybe so, but that is the benefit of civilization—the same progress that Christianity seeks to put a stop to.”
“Surely I don’t need to tell you that western civilization is a direct product of Christianity, but never mind that, I’ll let the ignorance of that accusation go for a moment in order to address the more important question: Civilization didn’t teach us not to kill, it just codified what we already knew. We all know that it’s wrong to kill. God’s given enough grace even to the atheist to know that much. And you’ve helped make my point. Horrors may have been committed alike by those who profess Christianity and those who profess atheism, but if a Christian commits an offense it is entirely opposed to the nature of his belief—it is a sign that he does not understand the faith he identifies with. If an atheist commits an offense… well… then it is really just that. He has only broken the laws of men; so he really has broken no law higher than himself.”
“I really don’t see your point.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to. My point is only that one cannot possibly commit an atrocity while actively pursuing Christianity; one cannot be simultaneously filled with both hate of another and love of God. Evil is precisely the opposite of what Christianity stands for. While I don’t deny that there are bad men who claim to be Christians, I can very confidently say that their evil is an aberration, and not the result of their allegiance. My point is that the same cannot be said of the humanist.”
“I can’t say that I’m entirely comfortable with your conclusion,” said the Skeptic uneasily.
“You really shouldn’t be. But that is both why Christianity will never die and why it will always be worth saving.”