Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Two Cultures?

This is an interesting article, if only because I get dragged into this debate all the time on the Internet, and the question is usually a variation of this one: "They'll say, 'how can you believe that? Did you check your brain at the door?" But he said he had discovered in talking to students and colleagues that "there is a great deal of interest in this topic." I also come across that question in my classes, whenever I tell my students that I'm an ordained minister, as well as an adjunct professor of English or Philosophy (depending on what class I'm teaching). And while I try not to encourage it (because it isn't the subject matter of the course), I suspect there is a great deal of interest in the topic among my students, too.

This usually springs from a simple source: people simply don't know what they are talking about, and fill in the gaps with speculation and ignorance. "Superstition" is a word I grew up with, too, although I applied it to fear of black cats and triskedecaphobia. When "scientists" apply it to religion, it is usually the "hard" sciences that are so dismissive. Few anthropologists today speak of "superstitions" among the "primitive cultures," because few social scientists are so arrogant as to rank cultures from "primitive" to "sophisticated." Indeed, the idea that cultures "progress" from simple to complex states has long ago been relegated to the dustbin of 19th century European imperialism, along with the idea of "simple" human languages. Despite the best efforts of 19th century British grammarians (who decided Latin was a more "advanced" tongue because it was spoken in Rome, the apex of human civilization; at least, that was the "scientific" presumption), scientists of language (linquists) have never found a "simple" language used by humans. Asl languages are equally complex, and no "proto-language" has ever been found from which more complex languages "evolved." But the same token, no "primitive" cultures are known from which our far more "advanced" cultures have "risen." The very idea is supremely arrogant in its presumptions.

But "scientists," as this article makes clear, continue to think that "religion" is somehow an attitude of humanity's "childhood."
This response is not surprising to researchers like Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas, a member of the academy and a winner of the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his work in particle physics. He said he could understand why religious people would believe that anything that eroded belief was destructive. But he added: "I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That's a good thing."
The presumption here is that religion is primarily concerned with explaining the material world, and was the primary agent of such explanation until the Enlightenment dethroned it.

But science is at heart a materialist philosophy, concerned with explaining the material world. The pre-Socratics lived comfortably alongside Socrates; Aristotle was simply interested in other issue than Plato. While Plato and Aristotle have never been reconciled in Western culture, we've managed to make the two live together (even architecturally!) . We recognize that Aristotle had other concerns than Plato. And yet we still struggle to recognize that while religion has stumbled into explaining the material world (most famously in the case of Galileo), such explanations have never properly been the sole province of religion, or religion's sole reason for being. (There is far less history of antagonism between religion and science in Eastern Christian traditions, for example). If you want a critigue of a religion that depends on miracles for its veracity, you need look no further than the Gospel of John. All four gospels include various "miracles" of Jesus of Nazareth, all for different purposes. John includes them, as Wendell Berry says of the Mad Farmer's Liberation Front Manifesto, to be like the fox "who makes more tracks than necessary/some in the wrong direction." John alone calls the miracles of Jesus "semeia," "signs," and in his gospel alone is the word used ironically. One of the gospel's themes is that "signs" are not evidence either of God's existence, or of God's activity. For John, if you are looking for a sign, if your standard for 'reality' is locked in the material world, then you are already asking the wrong questions.

The problem for the scientists in this article are that they leap from science, which is simply a type of knowledge (the Greek word from which the English word derives), to meta-science, or the overarching explanation "behind" that knowledge. Stephen Jay Gould is close to the point when he describes science and religions as "non-overlapping magisteria." And using either method to explain things beyond the scope of that method, is where the problems begin.

When I teach philosophy, I always include one of the central questions of philosophy of religion (itself a Hellenistic pursuit: I would pause to note that these scientists are very Western in their concerns. There are entire cultures on this earth, many of which are Christian, which are not concerned with the "conflict" between "reason" and "religion," because they harmonize the two on radically different, but radically satisfying, grounds. Shakespeare was right; there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. "Philosophy," you understand, being a Greek, not a universal, concept.): "Can God's existence be proven? Short answer: No. As Kierkegaard asked: can yours? The best you could do right now is prove that someone with my name is the source of these words. But prove my existence? Well, first, you'd have to define "existence." From that issue alone, springs phenomenology.

But when I teach philosophy of religion questions, or "Caedmon's Hymn," "The Dream of the Rood," Dante's Inferno, Paradise Lost, even Genesis, I never engage the question of religion or religious doctrine. I engage the philosophical or literary critical questions of the course. It is entirely possible, in other words, to teach Milton's Paradise Lost without engaging his soteriology, or Dante's Inferno without disagreeing with his medieval theodicy. And it's a notable omission that none of these scientists (especially the Nobel laureates questioned at the beginning of the article) note that the Big Bang theory of cosmology was first posited by Georges Lemaître, a Jesuit priest. (Apparently Fred Hoyle, who coined the term "Big Bang," never forgave Lemaître for being a priest; the more things change, I suppose. I've often wondered if Lemaître wasn't the model for Arthur C. Clarke's Jesuit priest in his short story, "The Star," with much the same sense of animosity.)

Well, I can see I've not thought about this clearly enough to be either succinct or conclusive. My point, I suppose, is that nothing in human experience that is worth pursuing, worth spending one's life on, ever means one part of our abilities is set aside in favor of all others. Just as I need to exercise in order to be healthy enough to think clearly, I need to harmonize my mind and my spirit, my reason and my faith. To even think that one must exclude the other, is to misunderstand the human experience altogether.

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