The Shallows and the Deep: The Democratization of Truth

15 04 2013


I found myself in one of those awkward situations yesterday where I was leading a discussion that was getting sidetracked by sincere questions that I knew from experience would lead to nothing but a series of tangled dead-ends, all of which begin with the implied qualification, “For what it’s worth,” to which the answer in each case was, “Not much.”

Okay, let me get more specific. It was about evolution and whether humans are simply the product of natural selection, or whether, perhaps, there’s a little more to it than that, like… say… God.

(*Qualifier: I’m no fan of creationism or any other religious attempt to usurp the basic theory of evolution. Nor, however, do I buy into the naturalistic assumptions of Darwinian theory, given that I believe that somewhere along the path to full humanity, God saw fit to establish a loving relationship with his creation and did so by giving us spirits, which I consider to be a basic element of our humanity, and likely the place where our species began. How, when, and where, exactly, did he do this? Ummm… January 1st, 10,000 BC, 6am local time? Humans are irreducibly spiritual beings, which entails the simple fact that our core selves cannot be reduced to the effects of naturalistic evolution.)

Okay, right? So boring as hell, so pre-2008. But please note: this wasn’t a discussion at a local chapter of the Society of Skeptics. No, this was an after-church discussion group at my local parish made up of five people plus myself: three college students from the school where I teach, all of whom happen to be wicked smart and traditionally conservative believers (no, not an oxymoron); our priest; and a graduate student from Caltech. You get three guesses who my interlocutor was.

And no, it wasn’t my priest. Or my students.

Let me get specific-er. Caltech guy was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of evolution in no way presumes that God could not be a part of such a process and that 2.) humans are in no way qualitatively different from other species of animals but only quantitatively so, due to the evolutionary advantage of coming late to the party called existence, which has the wonderful fringe benefit of a measurably larger prefrontal cortex. Ergo, there’s nothing terribly unique about us that can’t be traced back to the circumference of our brains.

I was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of Darwinian naturalistic evolution, to which my Caltech friend was referring, actually does presume both that God is not a part of the process and that the totality of our existence can be explained by simple reference to naturalistic causes; and 2.) that contrary to this, I believe humans are qualitatively different from other species of animals due to the fact that we were created imago Dei and have thus been endowed with spirits, which I take to be an uncontested fact in a setting of Christian believers (the fact, that is, that we are bodies and spirits and not merely bodies).

Caltech guy was incredulous at this, “this” being my position that we are qualitatively different from other animals due to our being the only ones created in the image of God, a point which I take to be one of the least sexy points I’ve made in probably, oh, three or four years. He was incredulous not because what I was saying contradicted scripture, which it does not, but because it contradicted his view of evolution, which he takes to be a theologically value neutral proposition, which it is not. No matter that what I was saying is implied (or explicitly stated) from Genesis to Revelation, and that Jesus makes repeated assertions throughout the gospels of our being unique by dint of our unique relationship to God, or that Paul insists again and again on the ontological priority of the human-God relationship vis-a-vis the rest of creation (Martin Buber’s I/Thou idea). Is it even prudent at such a point to start trotting out texts that speak directly to this issue (Romans 8:29, 1 Cor. 11:7, 15:49, 2 Cor. 3:18, Colossians 3:10, etc.)?

Regarding the whole idea of the biblical meaning of imago Dei, I refer you to this careful study by John Piper:

A few years back I did a talk for a local church on the biblical evidence for animals having souls (nephesh in the Greek), which I gathered was a good enough reason to treat animals with respect and care, and I was practically run out of the church by my own species. My point then, as now, is that the bible makes distinctions between animals and humans, bodies, souls, and spirits; and this is but one reason why hard-core evolutionists have such trouble with the Christian position, because we insist there is a God in whose image we humans are created, which is a complete non-starter for them (and understandably so).

But it isn’t just our position anymore. Even among scientific ranks there is division. Ian Tattersall, paleontologist and curator emeritus with the American Muesum of Natural History in New York and a noted expert on evolution, has argued that humans represent a “totally unprecedented entity” on the planet, and that “Homo sapiens is not simply an improved version of its ancestors – it’s a new concept” (from his book Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, [1998]). It’s important to note that Tattersall is not coming from any particular religious perspective in saying this. He’s simply making the point that, scientifically speaking, “the notion of human evolution as being a linear trudge from primitivism to perfection is totally wrong” (from his Wikipedia page).

But back now to my Caltech interlocutor and our sabre rattling at yesterday’s church discussion. I found the whole give and take disheartening for a few reasons. First, I know precious little about what my Caltech friend is studying in the field of quantum mechanics, and given that he is the far more trained person than I in this area, I’d fully expect him to begin rolling his eyes if I started to put up too many objections if he happened to be leading a discussion on, say, whether light is a particle or a wave. So yesterday I tried to keep my comments civil and not roll my eyes as he continued to press me for answers to questions that, to be quite honest, betrayed any real familiarity with the issue beyond a casual grasp of basic concepts that could be gleaned from a close reading of one or two books on the subject. But secondly, and even more depressingly, was the tenor of his questions, the rank presumptuousness with which he questioned my position and the utter incredulity he expressed over rather basic and time-honored suggestions such as, for example, that human beings are unique in creation.

Why is it that when any topic related to theological concerns comes up, everyone thinks themselves an expert? Why? Because theology is, by design, accessible even to children. We begin asking deep theological questions at the age of five. The mistake comes in the presumption that its very accessibility allows anyone, regardless of training, to somehow master the more complicated ideas — which theologians have been thinking over and wrestling with for thousands of years — in a single afternoon’s discussion over Chinese food. It would be like my assuming I could question a physicist’s foundational assumptions about photons because I can wire a light switch.

This kind of presumption is rife in today’s know-it-all “scientistic” culture, where gigabytes of information can be gathered in a single minute’s Google search sweep. But information is not knowledge, and so the truth — of anything — is not subject to majority rule or the principles of democracy or the hegemony of the scientific method. There is nothing inherently democratic (or, for that matter scientific) about the truth. It is entirely autocratic, even despotic, it its exactitude, by which I mean that even though our knowledge of any truth may be partially or even entirely limited, the truth still stands on its own as is, willy-nilly. And yes, this means that I believe in objective truth. And for those who think this a trifle bit naïf, I offer this bit of wisdom from philosopher Roger Scruton who said, “The man who tells you truth doesn’t exist is inviting you not to believe him. So don’t.”

In our age of democratizing claims to truth, it seems that anyone can question anyone any time about anything. Self-critical scrutiny of one’s own position, on the other hand, is a scarce commodity. How sometimes I wish theology was not accessible to children. But then, what would it be? The provenance of scholars only? Indeed, St. Jerome was right when he said about scripture, which I extend here to the task of theology, that it is “shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever touching bottom.”

And, if I may add, deep enough for quantum physicists to drown in.


The Problem with Rick Santorum, Inc.

19 02 2012

Rick Santorum is among that curious breed of folk who profess a singularly conservative theology that happens to look nothing like the belief the Bible prescribes. Otherwise known as “neo-conservative evangelicals,” these people lay claim to true Christian belief and act as if they were the mouthpiece of such belief. The more secular public has, for the most part, taken them to represent the Church as a whole, even though much of the rest of the Christian world does not understand these folks to be anything near the representations of authentic Christian belief. There is an entire swath of Christianity, in fact, who considers itself “evangelical” in the sense that it takes Scripture to be the inspired word of God and believes that Jesus is who he said he was, and who, as a result, remains steadfastly committed to the poor and disenfranchised and who support political platforms that give voice to this commitment. But you rarely hear of these folk. Why? Because our position isn’t titillating, isn’t prone to being summed up in cleverly cynical one-liners, neither provokes the political frenzy that such hyper-patriotic malcontents as the Tea Party seem singularly committed to fomenting, nor bow to the political pressures of gender or race or sexual identity politics. Our position doesn’t sell newspapers, in other words, because it isn’t prone to soundbites.

Tricky Rick is in another conundrum altogether, however, in that he’s a Roman Catholic, which in the eyes of many evangelicals doesn’t even count for Christian. Many of my students, most of whom come from conservative evangelical backgrounds, are quite taken aback by my insistence that Catholics are every bit as much Christians as they are. Often, even among my Catholic students, there is this disingenuous distinction between “Catholic” and “Christian.” So Mr. Santorum finds himself in a bit of a double-bind, in that many of the very people he’s courting find it difficult to accept him as one of their own. I must confess to a bit of private glee when I think of how the Republican party, which fashions itself as the bastion of true Christianity and decent family values, must choose between a Mormon, a Catholic, and a man on his third marriage. Not that I hold any grudge against any of these monikers, but the irony is, many Republicans do.

In an article from Reuters, we learn that Santorum said “the Obama administration . . . . was using ‘political science’ in the debate about climate change” and that his “agenda is ‘not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.'” He was speaking to a crowd of Tea Party conservatives (natch).

I guess I’d like to know what theology Santorum’s positions are based on, because the more I read his position statements, the more convinced I am that it’s a disingenuous blending of equal parts Bible and American Constitution, and therein lies the problem. We learn from his website that Americans need:

“… a system of governance that promotes human flourishing, seeks the common good and maximizes personal liberty. . . . Our founders understood that man’s nature is inclined toward self and sin, and that no one person or institution should have the opportunity to consolidate power, lest the freedom of others be taken away.”

Now riddle me this, Mr. Santorum. If our founders understood that man’s nature is inclined toward self and sin (actually, Jefferson didn’t, but that’s another issue), how is it that maximizing personal liberty, which is code for deregulation in virtually every area of life, even remotely makes sense? Wouldn’t maximizing our freedoms, by definition, lead to greater sin? That’s certainly the position of Scripture, where God makes it clear that, left to our own devices, we humans are our worst enemies and must therefore live within a set of strict moral and ethical guidelines and bear one another’s burdens when we fall and hold one another accountable in the meantime. Just read Paul’s letters to the Romans, chapters 1-3. But oddly, at other times, Santorum has said just the opposite ~ that the platform of the left is all about “I have the right to do what I want to do” (i.e. maximum personal liberty) ~ and then goes on to say that this is not the sort of freedom that our Founders envisioned. So I’m left to wonder, whose personal liberty is Santorum exactly trying to maximize? Republicans’? Neo-conservatives’? Fundamentalist Christians’? Because any way you cut it, the idea of maximizing personal liberty does not come from Scripture. All talk about freedom in any meaningful biblical sense comes from the freedom of slavery to sin, not the freedom that results in maximized personal liberty. It may be a Constitutional value, but then, the American Constitution and Scripture are not the same thing (which is a bit of a news alert to many social conservatives, including Santorum).

Santorum unabashedly believes in and promotes American exceptionalism, another one of those Republican “core Christian values.” But what is American exceptionalism if not outright idolatry? It is the view that understands America as a “city on a hill,” which is an explicit biblical designation reserved for the disciples of Christ alone and which Christ used in Matt. 5. The phrase “city on a hill” has been co-opted many times to refer to something other than the Church itself, which has conversely led to issues of confused identity. The Puritan John Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city on a hill,” which eventually led to misguided views of American exceptionalism and to the idea that America is somehow especially blessed by God (“My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty” and all that ~ which, not incidentally, ends with this stanza: “Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King”).

This is how Santorum puts it on his own website: “I truly do believe we are ‘the last best hope of earth. . .'” When Santorum channels Lincoln in this way, he is bastardizing Lincoln’s message, which was not about America being the last great hope of earth, but that the way of freedom for all people is the last best hope. The speech Lincoln gave in which he used this phrase is short, eminently readable by anyone caring to know a little bit about our own history. The context of the phrase is this:

“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

Notice how Lincoln is calling a way the last best hope, not a country. It is in extending freedom to all people that the last best hope resides. Not in some national identity. Turns out, Santorum’s theology is less built upon Scripture than it is upon this false ideal of American greatness. Santorum believes that America is exceptional not merely for what it has done, but intrinsically so, and he’s said as much. There is something almost divine about America ~ the city on a hill, that Promised Land of God’s favor. So for him to question Obama’s commitment to Christianity, and to claim that Obama’s theology comes from some place other than Scripture, is just plain hypocrisy.

The problem with Rick Santorum is that he, like many of his conservative cronies, has confused the American political vision with the Church’s Christian vision, and he no longer can make a meaningful distinction between the two. This is called idolatry in Scripture, and God has limited patience for such a thing.

To put it mildly.