This is the second and last in a series responding to some questions a semi-regular poster on the site, ‘Judge’ had about some of my recent articles and claims. Judge first asks a number of addition questions, starting with these three:
1. What does it mean for something to be the ‘basis’ of a culture/society? How does it inform that society in practice? If we’re talking about cultural, aesthetic, artistic influence, why is Christianity privileged over something like, say, the Greco-Roman world, which is just as preponderantly present everywhere in our culture?
I think this is fairly straight forward, and I have mentioned it briefly before. I think when I say ‘basis’ of our culture/society I am talking about the origin and development of those aspects that make up a society – the arts, music, literature, philosophies, politics, economics, etc. Even more particularly I am talking about the operating principles of a society.
In American society for example there are a number of defining principles, like human equality, inherent and definitive rights and the respect for conscience that can be specifically traced to our Christian worldview. Also critical is our understanding of human nature and how it informs our political philosophies and economics. Take for example one simple one – the view of human nature as corruptible. That is a distinctly Christian view derived from what Christians refer to as the ‘sin nature’, the view that we have a tendency follow our own selfish desires and are tempted by various enticements. The very structure of our government reflects that in its checks and balances system – a system meant to prevent selfish human ambition from becoming tyrannical.
2. Do you reckon that Hinduism, Buddhism and the like form the ‘basis’ of the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. societies? If that is so, then do you think it is possible for the basis of a society to be something other than religious? If so, can you provide an example? If not, then isn’t your point tautological – aren’t you just using the word ‘basis’ as just a synonim for ‘religion’?
No – if I say ‘flour is the basic and essential ingredient of bread’ it does not then follow that flour is synonymous with bread. However it might be essential to making bread. I think that invariably a society requires some sort of over-arching view about the nature of humanity and their relationship to each other, and principles by which to operate. I think the few times we have those principles have been derived from purely material or atheistic philosophies, the societies they have produced have been dismal failures – examples of that would be Revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, N. Korea, to name a few.
3. Are bases of societies necessarily monological – that is to say, is it possible to conceive of a society split in two or more different, competing cultural forces for its basis? Is it possible that the political division of right and left reflects the fact that society doesn’t have a single ‘base’, but more than one force acting in competition with each other, and that these forces put together form the real ‘basis’ of the society within which they work?
Sure, I don’t see Western society as only being the product of Christianity, and I have never made this claim. We have a long and varied influence with many influences. And there have been many failures along the way, as I said before stops and starts, steps forward and back. The same is true for most human societies. But I don’t think this prevents us from clearly seeing how the operating principles of Western society have largely been influenced by Christianity. At some level I think the politics of right and left, at leastin the extreme, reflect radically different views of human nature and the operating principles of government.
As it were, Christianity led to an equally complex set of superstitions and mythologies on the architecture of heaven, the number of angels and archangels, not to mention saints, as well as demons, witches, exorcisms, vampires and spirits, the structure of heaven and hell (which is completely fictitious, as the details barely appear in Scripture), and cloudy theological mysteries like the Trinity. I’m assuming you’ve read the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost? They’re every bit as colourful as the Odyssey or the Metamorphoses. Again, I have the impression that you’re assigning to Christianity a ‘special status’ of some kind. Much like you burden science with things which Christianity is no less vulnerable to, so you accuse pagan religions of issues which are also present in Christianity.
I think you are confusing ‘Christianity’ (that is a scripturally based belief system derived from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles) with the history of Christian Europe. There is no doubt that over the millennia a number of ideas have been introduced either as a derivative of or emanation of Christianity. In fact you acknowledge above that many of these ideas are completely fictitious and have no basis in Scripture. The writing of Milton and Dante were impactful and certainly influenced by certain ideas in Scripture, but they were never themselves considered doctrinal or traditional beliefs of Scripture – they were taken for what they were, powerful poetic ruminations on the implications of certain Biblical ideals – and they were notably allegorical with respect to the events at the time they were written.
In fact I would say this has been the great battle of Christianity over the years, the fight against maintain a pure doctrine derived from foundational orthodox beliefs and keep it from being tainted by human superstition and speculation. The Reformation was critical in this regard as it elevated Scripture into its proper centrality in the church, and made it available to believers for review and comprehension. From this we see Christian thinkers like Francis Bacon developing the scientific methodology as a bulwark not against Christianity, but against the ‘idols of men’s minds’ – superstitions and biases.
Also, the cosmology that you advocate is a bit of a free interpretation. The Gospel certainly doesn’t encourage scientific enquiry to understand God’s laws. I wouldn’t say that Acts 19:19 encourages open research, for example: Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men. The Old Testament does include more cosmological statements, though I’d like to see the specific passages by which you sustain an interpretation which seems to me rooted outside of Scripture (where do you get this idea that since the universe is made for us, it follows that we’re equipped to understand it?).
I find it curious that you see the passage in Acts 19:19 as anti-science. The word ‘curious arts’ is from the Greek periergos or in this context ‘magic arts’. The Christians were destroying their own books on magic – that isn’t a superstitious act, in fact in the full reading it’s the opposite! They were ridding themselves of superstitious items.
Also, the God in the OT is not too different from Zeus/Jupiter. A quick comparison of Yhwh in the Bible with Zeus/Jupiter in Homer and Virgil reveals the same fundamental function – an anthropomorphised fulcrum of physical, legal, moral, cosmic authority. The details are different, of course, and Zeus is anthropomorphised more explicitly, but their literary role is the same. In this sense the pagan minor gods have an almost subsidiary role, like the angels (consider the scene in the Iliad where Zeus tells Hera, ‘even if every other god in the world pulled a rope in one direction and I in another, it would still go where I’m pulling it.’).
I disagree strongly with this – Zeus was a child of Cronus, part of a genealogy of Gods – Jehovah is the ‘I am’, ever existing and transcendent. Zeus rules men according to his own whims and desires – Jehovah rules men according to well defined and unchangeable laws. In Greek mythology the troubles of men are a punishment for transgression of gods – in the Old Testament men suffer because of choices they made to transgress the eternal will of the only Jehovah. Jehovah inhabits no earthly place, and the universe is His creation, subject to his laws. The Greek god’s demi-gods inhabit earthly places and phenomena in nature are the result of their activities. Jehovah makes covenants with men that are eternal and binding – Zeus is fickle and deceptive and acts according to his own selfish purposes. I could go on, but I think the differences are clear.
If Christianity ‘cleared the way’ for scientific thinking, why is it that the period immediately following its consolidation in Europe was the most stagnant in scientific progress (or any progress) in European history – namely, the Dark Ages? Why didn’t science just immediately follow, instead of having to wait almost one thousand years to flourish again? Doesn’t this suggest that the direct connection you propound is in fact a fiction?
First off, ‘science’, that is the methodology developed by Francis Bacon didn’t ‘flourish’ previous to Christianity. In fact one of the most important steps Bacon and other thinkers of his time did was to free themselves from the hindrances of Greek and Roman thinking vis-à-vis natural phenomena – namely the use of deductive syllogisms to interpret nature as opposed to the inductive reasoning employed by Bacon’s methodology. And I am not sure what your view is of history, but Christianity didn’t become ‘immediately’ become consolidated in Europe – Rome stopped persecuting Christians around 300AD. After that it began to spread over Europe over the course of hundreds of years while facing growing challenges from Islam in the South, Huns from the East, Mongols from the Far East, plagues, and the incorporation and corrupting influences of Rome itself.
I think it would be simplistic to expect the immediate development of science, which depends not only certain principles, but also on the establishment of universities, the ability to publish and disseminate books and the freedom to exchange ideas. This doesn’t negate the fact that the scientific method sprung out of the thinking and writing of Reformation era Christian thinkers, who had those advantages – in large part because of the Reformation itself.
Furthermore, it is also ‘disproved as humanly possible’ that the earth and man weren’t created in seven days, that a man cannot be resurrected from death or water be turned into wine just by sheer will, nor can blindness be cured by touching a forehead, and that man evolved from the apes. You could claim that some or all of these things are metaphorical, but then, why isn’t Apollo’s chariot metaphorical as well?
I think you have conflated a few things here and missed the point in the process. The claim that Apollo’s chariot pulled the sun across the sky was an attempt to specifically explain directly observable phenomena in nature; i.e. that the sun moves across the sky. As we have disproved this religious idea it has been demonstrated that we can in fact disprove religious ideas, contra the claim that, “that no scientific theory can “disprove” any unfalsifiable assertion, whether religious or otherwise.” I think both by observation and scientifically derived explanation we have in fact disproved the idea that a chariot is pulling the sun across the sky.
With regard to the aforementioned miracles (water to wine, the resurrection, and blindness cured) these aren’t attempts to explain natural phenomena, but chronicles of unique events understood to have happened in the past. Though I think they can be discussed and debated reasonably and believed for perfectly rationale reasons, I don’t think they can be (nor have they been) disproved scientifically because they aren’t subject to current observation or experimentation. And as they aren’t offered as explanations for certain observable phenomena (as Apollo’s chariot was) then we wouldn’t expect science to contradict them in the same way.
And concerning the origin of the universe, earth, and mankind, I don’t think it is required that one has to see the description in Genesis as either an attempted scientific explanation or a metaphorical description – I have written elsewhere about how they should be viewed, which doesn’t contradict our current scientific understanding at all.
So I guess the short answer here is no, science has not disproved these things in the same way it has disproved other religious ideas, though I think it could render them untenable.
Jack says: Even in the OT you have Jewish laws which advocated practices like sterilization, quarantine, ritual cleansing, avoiding potential disease bearing vectors, not to mention the fact that certain living practices like those that forbade sexual promiscuity which would have avoided a host of diseases (like AIDs, which now plagues Africa).
I understand what you’re saying, but do bear in mind that a correct application of guided scientific methods – like contraception – would have been as effective as a correct application of religious ones in preventing the spread of Aids. Once again, you’re giving the lip to Christianity – there’s many more systems which would have been great for humanity if everybody had agreed to apply them, the problem is that people don’t. A doctrine that fails to account for human fallibility is responsible for the evil that is perpetrated as a result of this failure. Marxism, for example.
I find this somewhat contradictory and convoluted claim here. On one hand you admit the strictures given in the OT would have been effective in preventing a number of human ills, but then go on to claim that certain scientifically derived solutions would have been ‘as effective’ as the Scriptural solutions. But then you criticize Scripture for failing to ‘account for human fallibility’. Obviously the existence of contraceptives and prophylactics and medicines haven’t succeeded in eradicating the same problems for the very same reasons – so we are only left with the conclusion that our primary problem as a species is our fallibility! Or as the Bible puts it, it is the fact that we are corrupted but our sin nature. We have an inherent tendency to act according to self-destructive desires and so undermine potential solutions. And that is why science alone is not sufficient to deal with these problems – because it doesn’t solve for the problem (nor recognize it). But the whole point of the Bible is to point out that this problem exists, that it is the primary cause for human suffering, and that there exists a means to address the human condition. Science will never solve this for us, which is why the Bible is essential in this regard.
I fully agree with the last sentence, but yet again, what’s with the special status of Christianity? It never succeeded in changing human nature and our tendency to live immorally. We’ve had two-thousand years of it and it doesn’t seem to me like human nature has changed or wars have stopped. Yeah, of course if everybody followed the tenets Christianity, it would all work well, but that point is moot. Even fascism would ensure stability and peace if everybody were to follow the principles of Obey, Believe, Work. Or Communism, for that matter.
Well again, I think we in the Christian West live in one of the freest, healthiest, most prosperous places and times in human history. I think this is true in large part because Christian principles have been incorporated into our lives and society in a way they never have before. Not perfectly, but widely and uniquely from a historical perspective.
And beyond that Christianity is personally transformative, so that whether or not society at large accepts Christianity as true, an individual can experience the freedom and joy of faith in Christ. This is quite different than systemic solutions like Communism which depend on forcing individuals to comply with impositions by the state or society. Christianity is ‘bottom-up’, which is why it is organic and progressive unlike human systems which are ‘top-down’ and require certain entities to compel others to act a certain way. This is the inherent danger of atheism – it has no power to transform, and yet seeks to bend others to its will – which is why atheistic systems invariably become totalitarian.
Judge, I hope this addresses some if not most of you points. Thanks for taking the time to have this dialogue.