Saturday, May 09, 2015
Let's begin with some background: What I specifically propose in Disarming Scripture is that we learn to "look at the fruits" of how we interpret and apply Scripture in our lives. That is, I propose that our interpretation and application of Scripture is right if, and only if, it leads to love, and further that the way we can tell if it leads to love is by evaluating the effects it has in our lives (i.e. by looking at the fruits).
I make the argument that this reflects the approach of Jesus--not only because the phrase "look at the fruits" was his own, but more substantially because we can observe him doing this over and over with the Pharisees and his criticism of how they interpreted and applied the law in hurtful ways. In short, Jesus evaluated the effects of how the Pharisees understood and applied the law, and saw that it was hurting people. He consequently rebuked them, and went against their application -- healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, fellowshipping with sinners, and so on.
In the eyes of the religious authorities Jesus was breaking the law. But Jesus saw this as fulfilling it. Not by unquestioningly following its commands, but by lovingly bringing it where it needs to go in the service of love, even when that meant changing those commands to something harder and better ("You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I tell you...").
Wrap your head around how that works, and you will understand how Jesus read Scripture. One thing is clear: Jesus was not popular with the religious or state authorities of his time. He was perceived as a threat to authority, so much so that he was executed. Jesus and authoritarian religion are in conflict with one another.
The Enlightenment and the Birth of Science
Fast forward to the birth of modern science. Let's consider the context that it arose from: Christianity, both in its Protestant and Catholic forms, had long ago merged with the state, and become very violent. People were burned at the stake for heresy. Others were tortured in the most cruel and inhumane ways imaginable. Crusades were waged in the name of Jesus.
As a reaction against that authoritarian tradition and the violence and oppression that accompanied it, the Enlightenment arose. The Enlightenment focused on reason over authoritarian tradition. It is in this context that modern science was born.
Science has consequently been seen as a threat to faith (and faith seen as a threat to science). From the get-go science challenged the authoritarian claims of church tradition. Copernicus' discoveries challenged the Catholic Church's claim that earth was the center of the universe, showing instead that it revolved around the sun. When Galileo followed Copernicus he was declared a heretic and put under arrest for the rest of his life.
Today we still can see that conflict between religion and science in the battle of evolution and creationism. However, I would propose that this is really not where the battle-line lie today. The conflict of evolution and natural science was the battle of the early 20th century that conservative Fundamentalism and neo-Evangelicalism arose from. Today's front-line battle is about social science and its moral critique of authoritarian religion. If you listen to the "New Atheists" this is their focus (note that I have a lot of problems with the New Atheists, which I'll address in a moment. Here I'm simply saying where the battle-line are today).
Let me elaborate on that a little: Natural science tells us that the church was wrong about the cosmos or about the origin of life, but social science tells us that it was also wrong about morality. When religion is wrong about matters of science we can perhaps say "Well, the Bible is not a science book, but it is flawless in matters of faith and morality." Dodged that bullet! However, when we start to see that it's wrong about matters of morality this hits us right at home because this is exactly what the Bible speaks to.
This is not simply a matter of understanding things from the past (for example: Why did they commit genocide in the OT?), but of what is promoted right here and now in the name of conservative Christianity -- often despite what social science might tell us about how hurtful it is. I could name a long laundry list of examples here, and I suspect you could as well.
Let me further clarify that the conflict here is not really between science and religion, but more specifically it is a conflict between science and authoritarian religion. Science is simply about observing. We observe that something is hurtful, and this causes us to reassess our course. As we have seen above, Jesus and the Apostles' faith was characterized by those kinds of practical life observations leading them to question hurtful application of Scripture within their own religious tradition. So the conflict is not between science and faith. Faith is fully capable of questioning, too. This is known as the "prophetic spirit," and it runs all through the Hebrew tradition that Jesus identified with. The problem is authoritarianism.
Let me further state that science is not immune from authoritarianism. Or at least, a lot of people -- perhaps the majority of people -- understand science in an authoritarian way. We hear reports on the news that cite a "scientific authority." We read headlines with titles like "science has proven that..." Just as with the Bible, it appears that on a populist level if science says it, that settles it.
This reflects a popular but fundamental misconception of what science is and how it works. Because of that misconception, science becomes a new kind of religion, a new source for unquestioning authoritarianism for some secularists. On the flip side of that coin are Christians who will object that science is not fool-proof and has often been wrong, so we cannot rely on science as a source for moral absolutes.
Confusing Methodology with Ideology
The problem here is that this all reflects a profound misunderstanding of what science is and how it functions. Science is not an ideology at all; it is a methodology. It does not claim to have objective absolute knowledge or to be immune from error. On the contrary, because science recognizes that we humans are not objective, it employs tools to eliminate bias as much as possible. That is at the very core of how the scientific method works.
So when I say in Disarming Scripture that we should learn from this and incorporate it into how we interpret Scripture, I do not mean that we should simply give the theological car keys to the scientists, which would just mean switching the source of authority. Rather I am proposing that we would not only benefit from listening to scientists' conclusions, but also that we theologians could greatly benefit from learning about the methods they have developed for removing human bias from observation. Honestly, you'd think we theologians would really appreciate that, since it is about recognizing our human limitations and biases.
Further, let me stress that the scientific method functions by advancing in knowledge. Einstein builds upon Newton, quantum physics builds upon Einstein. Each recognizes limitations, blind spots, and even errors in earlier science. That's how it is supposed to work. So when people object that "science does not give us absolute answers," I stress that it never claims to be able to, and in fact the opposite is the case. The scientific method is not about naive optimism ("Yay, science gives us the right answer!"). Rather, it is a practical methodology focused on recognizing all the ways we can be biased, and coming up with safeguards and tools to eliminate that bias as much as possible -- including how that understanding develops and grows over time by the process of further inquiry. That's not a flaw in the methodology, it's how it is supposed to function.
Faith and Science as Allies
The way of unquestioning obedience always leads to hurt. We instead need to develop the art of faithful questioning in the name of compassion, and the methodology of science provides us with a tool proven effective in that pursuit. That is, learning how to observe the effects in people's lives as objectively as possible is a crucial and practical tool for evaluating whether we are applying Scripture wrongly or rightly. Understanding those tools for eliminating bias allow us to take Jesus' method of "looking at the fruits" beyond where it was in those pre-scientific times. Not taking advantage of those tools today is just as silly as saying a pastor can't wear a microphone because Peter and Paul didn't have one when they preached the gospel.
Let me underline again that the goal here is not to arrive at some perfect absolute via science. That is again just not how science works. So if the question is "how can we be sure we will not get it wrong?" I hate to break it to you, but we will get it wrong. History shows this over and over. We are humans, and humans get stuff wrong. Religion does not stop that from happening. The Bible does not stop that from happening. Science does not stop that from happening. It's part of being human, and there is just no way around it.
However that does not mean that we need to continue on a course that we can see is hurtful. That is the mistake of authoritarianism. It says "this is the way we do this, and we cannot change, even when we see that it is hurtful."
That we can avoid.
Authoritarianism is the problem -- whether that's authoritarian religion or authoritarian science or whatever -- authoritarianism ignores evidence, it ignores conscience, it ignores reason, it ignores life. As a result it perpetuates hurt, and that's clearly bad. That is most definitely a mistake we can and should avoid.
We instead need to find a way to move forward, to grow, to develop, to progress morally. In that pursuit faith and science can be great allies. Science is not a replacement for faith, mind you, but an ally. From Jesus we have the content of the way of grace, forgiveness, and enemy love. Science as a methodology helps us to evaluate this so we can see if we are getting it right, and to help us to grow in it.
Finally, let me say that recognizing how the scientific methodology can provide us with a valuable hermeneutical tool in our pursuit of applying the way of Jesus in our lives and world does not invalidate other tools. We can certainly learn from the wisdom of the past as we can learn from community. I myself have learned a great deal about enemy love from the inner promptings of the Spirit. The only thing I reject is authoritarianism. That means for example that I would never want to claim that my view of enemy love is right because I heard it from the Spirit (even though I did). Rather, for me listening to the Spirit means having a heart that is humble, open, seeking, self-reflected, and always wanting to grow in love.