"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Against Interpretation

The concept of interpretation is all here: there is no experience of truth that is not interpretative. I do not know anything that does not interest me. If it does interest me, it is evident that I do not look at it in an uninterested way.
Gianni Vattimo, "Toward a Nonreligious Christianity," After the Death of God, ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press 2007)

The world is kind to scientists.

This is not because science is true or good or wise; it is because we have arranged our culture this way.  Once upon a time the world was kind to religious figures.  We call that 'medieval' now, though it was true in Europe and America until at least the end of the last century, and is still true somewhat now, despite the best efforts of the "New Atheists."  Still the world is much kinder to science than it is to religion.

Which is not a statement of value about either one.  If anything, I prefer religion, especially Christianity, to be out of power rather than in power.  Lord Acton's proverb is a correct one, and power is antithetical to the gospel message of the blessed poor and meek and hungry and mourning, and of who we should care for and when we care for God in doing so.  So it isn't that the world's values are topsy-turvy and we should turn back time or turn history back toward what never was.  It is not a statement of value, it is just a statement of fact.

The world values statements of fact.  The Western world does, anyway, the Anglo-American world even more so.  So leave it as a fact:  this world is kind to scientists, because we have structured it to be so.

Which is why science can ignore religion, but religion must take cognizance of science.  Science proceeds largely unchallenged, except by economics and politics (which fuel and fund it), and rarely by society (only through the arms, really, of economics and politics:  what we are willing to pay for, and how we are willing to pay for it).  Proceeding unchallenged it doesn't brook challenge, either.  Thomas Kuhn points out how science works in terms of paradigms, and scientists struggle to deny it or rewrite it so that science still produces "truth," even if they are careful not to get anywhere near Pilate's question:  "What is 'truth'?"  Philosophers and theologians struggle with that question (or presumably so).  Scientists consider it settled, and whatever disturbs their complacency is ignored, or re-interpreted.

Some religious figures do the same thing, and making the parallel is not unintentional.  Science functions now much as religion did then:  in a culture that is kind to it, supportive of it, and doesn't allow serious challenges to be made.  If Kuhn's philosophy of science unmoors science from access to "absolute truth" (whatever that phrase means!) or "reality" (again, meaning!), he does no more than David Hume did 200 years ago.  But science can't be bothered with philosophy, and the culture is kind to science and not to philosophy, so science rolls on.

How many scientists study any subject that challenges their fundamental assumptions, their basic beliefs?  How many scientists attend schools where professors attack what they have held to be long true, and try to replace it with other answers, or force the students to find answers on their own?  How many scientists even study the philosophy of science?  Are challenged to consider that what they prefer to think may not be true?  Are made professionals in their field precisely by examining the verities they thought unassailable, and finding them mere opinion and speculation and written on beach sand and the wind?

And then are told to go out and do their jobs?

The world is kind to scientists.  We've made sure to construct it to be that way.  We've told them that what they know is true, and they just need to apply their mathematics and their knowledge of physics and zoology and genetics and biology and go out there and discover more true things about all those fields.  And we will look kindly on their endeavors and accept their conclusions like tablets brought down from Sinai.

Who among has seen the evidence of the Higg's boson?  Who among us doubts its credibility, unless we are told it is incredible?  And then we are ready to believe when told, no, no in fact it's true after all.  Who are we to judge?  The scientists said so, it must be true.

But if I say God has told me to hand out blankets to the homeless, to lug pots of soup to the hungry, to welcome the stranger into my home as if he were my oldest friend...what would the world say then?  That I was mad?  That I was Mother Teresa, and someone had become my Christopher Hitchens?  I've as much evidence for the reality of God as I have for the Higg's boson:  in both cases, it's because other people testify to that reality, and I accept their testimony.  In one case, actually, I accept the testimony as explanation of my own experience.s

But science could say my experience is a delusion.  I cannot say the scientists are deluded about the "God particle."  I don't know enough about science to do that; and the world will not be kind to me if I declare the physicists liars.

The world is kind to scientists.

Scientists don't go through boot camp to be recognized as scientists, to earn their Ph.D.'s.  They aren't taught that all they learned about science in childhood is false, that is all must be replaced with new knowledge, that they must be ready to accept what they were always told cannot be true because it is better to bend with a parishioner than to break on the rock of unyielding certainty in what you believe.  Scientists know and believers only believe; but scientists know only what they believe.  They accept the premises and conclusions without ever doing each and every experiment themselves. They accept the explanations and the systems of thought; good students have to be very, very good at accepting systems of thought.  What they cannot be good at it original thought, is skepticism, is questioning everything a la Descartes.  They cannot be good at wondering why love is more important than gravity, or what bosons have to do with human society, or why technology is so easy and justice so hard.  They cannot be good at those things, they can only be good at certain things; and the world is kind to them for what they are good at.  The world rewards systematic thought that understands systems and works within them, that perhaps cuts a new groove but works deeper and deeper into the system.  The world does not reward people who ask the wrong kinds of questions; who ask hard questions.

The world only likes people like that when they are dead; when they have stopped asking questions.  The world is kind to scientists because the world is always kind to power.  The world is not kind to those who question power.

Pastors are taught to question power.  It's not a lesson they always learn, but it is a lesson they are repeatedly taught.  They are taught, among other things, that science has the power; that science has the whip hand, and discussion of "miracles" and metaphysics must bow to science, must crook the knee and bow, because there is no good to come of challenging science anymore.  And there's something right about that; and there's something wrong.

They are taught first to challenge the power of what they believe: to recognize it is brittle and fragile and will break easily and at the worst possible time, and what will you do then?  Best you learn now, in seminary, and not out there, in the world.  The church is in the world.  The church is a microcosm of the world.  And the world is not kind to the religious.  So pastors are taught to question power, because they don't have any power anymore.  Perhaps they never did; but they certainly don't now.

So pastors are taught to challenge power; because in a crisis, in despair and fear, in the moments of horror in the face of death or challenge to what one has held most dear, it is power that is lost.  The power to keep your child alive, or your spouse from dying, or your family together:  the power to save your own life, to maintain the life you've had and always expected to keep.  You have to learn there are no certainties, in order to steer people toward certainty; because platitudes won't do.  You seldom comfort people with "she's in a better place" or "God won't give you more than you can handle," unless you leave soon after you've said it, and imagine what you did was good.  If you are going to stay with them you have to live the experience with them; and sometimes for the experience there are no words and there is no comfort except compassionate humanity.  Sometimes you do not speak; you can only endure.  The shortest verse in the Bible, in the Gospel where Jesus is the wordiest man in the room, in the entire story, tells the tale:  "Jesus wept."  Sometimes common humanity is all you have to offer.  It is a challenge to your power, to realize that some experiences just have to be lived through, in mutuality; in communion with one another.

You have to question the validity of power, because it will one day make you question the validity of all you hold dear, even life itself.

If you do not question, you will not know what is true.  Scientists pride themselves on their questions; but they do not question their fundamental assumptions.  They do not challenge their basic beliefs, and if they are so much as called into question (the example of Kuhn), most scientists are quick to point out that Kuhn doesn't mean what he seems to mean, or that he isn't really talking about "science."*  They rally round to protect their field more ardently than any theologian, more devotedly than any religious believer.  If you do not question, you will not know what is true.  If pastors are taught to question, it because pastors are not taught science, they are taught wisdom.  They aren't necessarily good at it, any more than every scientist is the best and purest scientist possible.  But their subject is wisdom, and the path to wisdom starts with questions, guided by the challenge that "everything you know is wrong."  If you think it isn't, you will find yourself one day in a place where you realize it is:  and what then?

Not every believer has to go through that; but not everyone who benefits from science has to be a scientist.  It really is a matter of how narrowly you think you have to define your interests; and, in Godelian terms, what questions your system will allow you to ask, and what questions you won't force it to look elsewhere for.

*"These kinds of speculation are fun, but they are not science, yet. 'Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,' goes the saying attributed to Richard Feynman, the late Caltech Nobelist, and repeated by Dr. Weinberg."--Paul Davies  Gotta keep those magisteria from overlapping, ya know.  Gotta keep science pure, which is to say, in another vocabulary:  holy.


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