Myopia


Intelligent Falling is not a thing.  It’s a joke, from start to finish found in this article from the Onion:  http://www.theonion.com/articles/evangelical-scientists-refute-gravity-with-new-int,1778/ from seven years ago.  Recently a friend of mine posted it to facebook, and got me thinking about our modern debate regarding faith and reason, or science and religion.  I think the topic has been clouded in the popular discussion, and perhaps needs some clarification.

First, it should be understood that there are really two main camps in this debate, the first is exemplified by the position of the Evangelical Fundamentalist1.  The second is that of the Scientific Naturalist.

These two camps can be summed up by the following positions.  Evangelical Fundamentalists view the direct cause of many things in the universe to be the intervention of God.  This includes intelligent design, the appearance of dinosaur bones, and the apparent age of the earth due to the flood of Noah.  The answer to the question: “Why did this happen?” is, from this position: “God did it.”

On the other side, the Scientific Naturalist side, very similar to the old Logical Positivist view, sees that things happen because of simple cause and effect.  This includes the appearance of logical human thought, art, and religion.  The answer to the question: “Why did this happen” is, from this position: “The universe did it.”

The first view thinks that the lense by which to understand the universe is a particular way of interpreting the Bible.  They, of course, would not put it that way.  They would say that it is “the Bible” that is their lense through which they see.  But the truth is that any text, no matter how clear, involves a layer of interpretation.  That is simply how the human mind works.  It is demonstrably clear that Fundamentalist Evangelicals view the bible in a very particular way, and use very particular tools to interpret it.  They reject historical critical, source, and literary methods for understanding the meaning of the text.  They reject the traditions of the Church from the Patristic through the medieval and Reformation periods on how to interpret the bible.  Instead they use tools which are ironically as modern as the scientific ones they are arguing against.

The second view thinks that the lense by which to understand the universe is a particular way of interpreting scientific data.  They, of course, would not put it that way.  They would say that it is “Science” that is their lense through which they see.  But the truth is that any data, no matter how simple, involves a layer of interpretation.  This is simply how the human mind works.  It is demonstrably clear that Scientific Naturalists view scientific data in a very particular way, and use particular tools to interpret it.  They reject philosophical and logical methods of understanding causation.  They reject the more Aristotelian models of thought that have shaped western thinkers for a millennium, and the platonic ones that have shaped them for two millennia.  Instead they use tools which are as modern as the ones they are arguing against.

Now, the modern debate of science and religion really boils down to the opposition of these two particular views, or one of these views versus a more moderate position on either side.  Thus fundamentalist evangelicals can be just as opposed to a Scientific Naturalist as to a Christian theologian arguing for anything from historical critical methods for interpreting the Bible to an allegorical understanding of Genesis 2-3 that embraces early paleolithic human culture.

As well, the Scientific Naturalist will be at odds both with a Fundamentalist Evangelical or a Jewish Physicist who leaves room for the intervention of God in the universe, or the appearance of human thought and reason.

It is important to note that these two positions are modern positions, arising out of the period of the enlightenment, and are not representative of a perennial struggle between reason and religion.  In fact, reason and faith have lived quite happy lives together for millennia.  The problem lies in equating reason with Scientific Naturalism (or its predecessor, Logical Positivism) and faith with Evangelical Fundamentalism.

If we define our terms such that they are opposed to each other, they will of course, be opposed.  But they need not be defined that way.  Faith need not be simply “That which rejects reason” but instead “trust in a person or persons” which is how the Bible originally framed it.  Human beings had faith in Jesus because Jesus is faithful.  In fact the term “the faith of Jesus Christ” is a rather confusing one in the New Testament.  It can mean a number of different things, none of which are “that which rejects reason.”

As well, reason can be defined not simply as “that which goes by the facts” but as “a mode of thought which attempts to link ideas by the rules of logic.”  This involves the ground->consequent or proposition->conclusion relationship.  Everything from syllogisms to contra-positives are included here.

Interestingly enough, neither of the modern views seem to hold to these broader definitions.  Faith in Jesus, for Fundamentalist Evanglicals, is faith in a mechanism for which Jesus is the proper instrumentation: Salvation.  For Scientific Naturalists, reason does not mean formal logic, otherwise the many logical contradictions in their position would be immediately obvious.

What both of these perspectives have in common, beyond the parallel descriptions given above, is that they are mono-causal in their approaches.  This means that, as we have seen, when we ask “why” a thing happened, there is one ultimate answer: God, or the Universe.

People have not always thought like this.  You might ask how this little essay got written.  Well, if you ask a Fundamentalist, you might get the answer that “God’s sovereignty ordained for it to happen.”  If you ask a Scientific Naturalist, you might receive something like “Due to causation regressing to the first moment of time, nothing could happen except this essay at this exact moment.”

But the reality is that there are multiple reasons as to “why” the essay got written.  When people knew their Aristotle, they would have identified the different causes for the essay.  There would be the material cause…which in this case is mostly electrons and bits of silicon, since I’m writing on a computer, not paper.  The material cause is its material, or what it is made of.  There is the formal cause…the “essay-ness” of the essay, or its form.  There is the efficient cause, and that’s me.  I’m writing it, I’m making the essay happen.  And finally there is the final cause, which is the goal of the essay.  The formal cause is also called a Telos, or a purpose/reason.

Each of these explains why a thing came to pass.  And you can see that all of them are necessary to get at why this essay exists.  However, both Evangelical Fundamentalism and Scientific Naturalism both ignore some causes.  For Evangelical Fundamentalism, the Efficient cause is sufficient.  “God does it.”  For Scientific Naturalism, the material cause is sufficient “It’s made up of things which have certain properties.”

Now, of course, applying Aristotle’s four causes to the universe is just one more particular way of looking at the universe, a particular way of reading texts or interpreting data.  However, when applied, it simply does away with the debate of “Science vs. Religion” or “Reason vs. Faith.”  It can see the universe as having a multitude of causes, each complementary to the other.

Most of us do not in our daily lives obey the myopia of these two polar positions.  We will often flit from one cause to the next, and we will often do it without much thought.  This belies the two extremes of Scientific Naturalism and Evangelical Fundamentalism.  They are alien to natural human thought.  Instead, what is natural, and far more human, is to understand that things may have many causes without being contradictory.  You see, Aristotle was not prescribing four causes…he was describing how the universe works.  We might argue whether or not his four causes are sufficient…but we would, and do, impoverish ourselves if we throw out three of them.  Any three.

1.  It should be noted, as per the comments below, that there are those who identify themselves as Evangelical Fundamentalist who do not fully fit into the picture presented here.  Most specifically in the area of an attitude toward the uses of historical and source criticism in Scriptural studies.

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15 thoughts on “Myopia

  1. I rarely comment on such things and certainly feel no need to stoke any egos, but I can basically say this is right on the money in almost every way. You even anticipated an objection I was forming in the subsequent paragraph. And, this is coming from an evangelical fundamentalist (when both such words are properly understood in their historical context …especially that fundamentalist word which is incredibly misused and understood in recent times).

    Now, my one complaint is here: “[Evangelical fundamentalists] reject historical critical, source, and literary methods for understanding the meaning of the text.” My complaint has two facets.
    One, in general, one should be careful pronouncing upon what an out-group (ie a group one identifies as different than their own in the present context) does or thinks. It is usually best to let the out-group speak for themselves through quotations by authorities within the group. Also be aware of one’s own tendency towards out-group homogeneity bias. Which leads to:
    Two, specifically, not all who would describe themselves as evangelical fundamentalists automatically reject historical, source, form, and literary critical methods. I know of many who don’t (…specifically see the Word Biblical Commentary and Expositor’s Bible Commentary …both of which are overwhelmingly evangelical in their selection of authors). What evangelicals will do however, is as a first step, give the benefit of the doubt to God over reason (to use your dichotomy), and then if there still exists some dissonance, to subject the reason to faith rather than to submit their faith to reason. That’s at least my method.

  2. Adam,

    Thanks for the response. I would say that the reason I chose the term Evangelical Fundamentalist was to try to hone in on a very particular perspective. Thus, not all Evangelicals are covered by this description (I know several Evangelicals who are perfectly fine with Historical and Source Criticism), and as well to differentiate this group from Evangelical Lutheran or Evangelical Catholic Christians.

    As well, I would argue that anyone who sees Source, Historical, and Literary criticism as valid lenses through which to understand scripture has left the Evangelical Fundamentalist community on a pretty basic level. The sine qua non of Evangelical Fundamentalism involves a mode of interpreting scripture that is hostile to these methods. Again, not specifically Evangelical Christianity, but that brand which is identifiable as “Fundamentalist.”

    The difficulty, in such a short piece aimed at a ground level explanation, in using quotations is that one or two authors may be seen as “exemplars” of the position, but the question remains as to whether this clarifies the general explanation. You certainly aren’t arguing that I couldn’t find such quotes. And what clarification could they add to such a basic treatment of the subject? I agree that in a work of erudition, such quotes are not just useful, but mandatory. But I suppose I don’t see what good they would do in this explanation, especially when they are so abundant elsewhere.

    • “The sine qua non of Evangelical Fundamentalism involves a mode of interpreting scripture that is hostile to these methods.”
      I disagree here. I believe that to be an incorrect interpretation of what makes one a fundamentalist. I disagree as one who has read all four volumes of the Fundamentals (the series of essays from which the I movement gets its name) and further as one who self identifies as a fundamentalist.
      Be wary of asserting a property of a group, and then going on to posit that those who don’t have that property are not a part of the group. First, its a no-true-Scottsman fallacy, and second it can lead to the hijacking of terminology. Which I would assert has already happened, as the term “Fundamentals” was chosen by the group to hone in on (specifically the 5) fundamental things that they felt were the bar for true christian faith. The essays, of course, went on to address many other things including the authority of the critical methods.
      I would also argue, btw, that they are not “hostile” to the methods themselves, but rather are hostile to the authority of those methods over the text.
      Further, my pointing to the quotations as opposed to your assertion allows the movement to define what they are with their own words, which is far more fair than to speak on behalf of the movement.
      Can I get a “fair enough”?

      PS: The 5 Fundamentals:

      1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
      2. The deity of Jesus Christ
      3. The virgin birth of Christ
      4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
      5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth.

      You can argue the theology and historicity of any of 2-5 certainly, and that is not my point here, but in point 1, to say that beliving in “the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture” is automatically hostile to the critical methods is a false dichotomy. Certainly something you can argue the shades of and methods for arriving at, but in itself I believe it cannot be said to be hostile to any method without smuggling interpretation into the argument.

  3. Adam,

    Unfortunately we come to the point where the meanings of words are incredibly important, and where the debate leaves the general introduction to this topic that this piece is meant for.

    I agree that the your historical assessment is correct, but the modern situation does not bear out that original historical impetus in the same way in which it was formulated at Princeton. The terms inspiration and inerrancy have a very particular meaning within Evangelical Fundamentalism (and I am not speaking merely as an outsider here, as you indicate, but as a former adherent to the contemporary perspective expressed by what I am calling here Fundamental Evangelicalism).

    Those meanings of these terms are, by and large, in the context of the modern discussion, directly hostile to the methods which I listed.

    There are always two debates going on, those of the highly educated, and that of the popular media and best selling book. You seem to be wanting this essay, which is aimed at the second discussion, to adhere to the rules of the first. We can certainly have that discussion, but that wasn’t the point of this piece.

    As well…and with a bit of my tongue in my cheek…I would advise being wary of telling people to be wary instead of simply clarifying your position. While it is true that the way in which you define Evangelical Fundamentalism in the modern context is very clearly tied to the Fundamentals, it is my experience the average Evangelical Fundamentalist does not do the same. The problem is not specifically that I have hijacked the terminology, but that the terminology, and the beliefs, have already been hijacked by a century of modification and dissemination beyond their original scholarly context. If I aimed at Evangelical Fundamentalists the way that you are describing them, I would be aiming at a different group than I am actually representing here in this essay.

    Now, if that group should be called by another name, then it would be very useful to have a more precise name for them.

    And while I can say “fair enough” to your comment, I reiterate that the purpose, or to put it in above terms, “Final Cause” of the essay is to give broad strokes of our current situation and thus be accessible to a wider audience. A short blog post aimed at clarifying a few points is not a scholarly work. A paragraph on Vikings in a short history of Europe need no contain quotes from the Snorra Edda to be valid.

  4. If words are indeed incredibly important and yet you lay the importance aside to appeal to a popular audience are you not fueling a discourse that lumps together those that indeed are distinct and would object to your categorization? In your own words you have admitted to there being at least two such groups. If I am a member of one of them, do I not have the responsibility to point out where your boiling down of results is an inaccurate characterization not only historically but now as there is at least one such person (myself) presently engaged in the public discourse in this topic who *does* see the distinction as important? To disagree or dismiss this point would be to marginalize a reasonable voice within the camp you are speaking about in order to paint the group as a whole in the most negative light possible. Scholarly or popular, this is at best an accident, at worst intentional disinformation.

    For my defense:
    When I was telling you to be wary, I was trying to politely point out that you had engaged in a logical fallacy. I also, did not say you had hijacked the terminology but rather that your fallacy can lead to a hijacking of terminology, which it would seem we both agree has already happened. I would argue that I have a right to point out when such has happened, and indeed that I should (see my opening paragraph).

  5. Adam, in my last reply I suggested that there might be another term for the group that I am referring to. Since you lay claim to the term that I used, do you have another one which would be more precise and useful?

    And if the essay was intended to paint a group in “as negative a light as possible” why did you initially say that it was right at almost every point? Those two things seem in conflict. If the piece is simple hate-mongering with no regard for the facts, it does seem to be in contradiction to your initial post.

    And I may very well disagree with you without marginalizing you. And I don’t believe I’ve dismissed you in any way, as evidenced by my engagement with your points. I hardly think that making counter points, whether I am right or wrong, amounts to dismissal or marginalization.

    And as to the “no-true-Scottsman” fallacy, I had laid out my definition of “Evangelical Fundamentalism” and was saying that anyone who does not conform to that definition is not included in the group that I had defined. Without a proper adjective to describe these two different groups that may take the term, what recourse is there to say anything except “by the terms I have set out, which I have defined, someone who does not fall in those terms is not included in my definition, no matter what name they go by.” This is why definition is included with terminology, to clarify what is meant.

    Now, I agree, that if you claim the name used in a piece, and it does not represent you, then it is your duty to speak up. However, it is also your duty to then offer a more precise terminology if the matter is that important.

  6. I do not have a different name to offer for myself, as I prefer for the more recent idea to be the one to have to have the new name. I am specifically laying claim to the original name. This has been a primary goal here, to assert my right to use the name that has its basis in history rather than lose it and be forced to redefine myself because popular opinion has distorted the historical meaning. Always working within terms of the popular zeitgeist results in continually moving goal posts and never having any historical basis to appeal to. In short we end up having only a continually shifting majority opinion and never a basis.

    As far as what to call the group whose sine qua non is their rejection of the critical methods, I would simply call that group “those who reject the critical methods”. Clearly that would take away from the readability of your essay and not be appropriate. To be clear, I do not object to your usage of the term evangelical fundamentalist in the above essay. Rather, I object to a specific property (the rejection of critical methodology) you apply to the group being a justifiable generalization. My entire objection would be moot if the wording admitted that it was a not-entirely-inclusive generalization. In other words, moot if you accept my premise that the sine qua non of evangelical fundamentalism is in fact not the rejection of critical methodology and would also hypothetically agree that “some of which” or “many who” (but not “most of which” which implies an actual count and majority) would be appropriate modifiers to your assertion regarding the opinion of fundamental evangelicals viz. critical methodology.

    On to what I did *not* say. I never said that the essay was intended to paint a group in as negative of a light as possible, nor did I say that you could not disagree with me without marginalizing me, nor did I say that you had dismissed me, nor did I say that making counter points amounted to either dismissal or marginalization. (In short I think your second and third paragraph are assuming an overreach of what I was actually trying to say).

    Which is, that disagreeing with or dismissing my act of speaking up when I feel an important distinction exists is to marginalize a voice. Just as you say in your original essay, the act of reading has interpretation built in and I see how your interpretation differed from my intent and can even understand how that happened.

    “If the piece is simple hate-mongering with no regard for the facts, it does seem to be in contradiction to your initial post.” I feel this is an overreach of what I was attempting to do when I was making my point. Even if I felt you were trying to paint fundamentalist evangelicals in as negative light as possible, which I feel the prior two paragraphs and a careful reading of the original statement would show was made in the subjunctive, it would not make the piece itself simple hate-mongering. Again and as emphatically as possible, I am not criticizing the piece at all, but rather what I feel was an unwarranted generalization made in the form of an assertion rather than presented thru evidence.

    In regards to the no-true-Scottsman, I did not see any place where you had defined what you meant by the term, but rather you seemed to start using it assuming the reader understood what you meant. You then went on to describe a property of the group that I felt was not justifiably able to be generalized to the group. You then went on to say in a comment after the publishing of the original essay that to be a Fundamentalist had a sine qua non of being hostile to critical methodology. This is the point at which it became a no-true-Scottsman fallacy.

    “it is also your duty to then offer a more precise terminology if the matter is that important.” …I would disagree that it is necessarily incumbent upon me from the start, however, upon being pressed, I would agree that it would be a dereliction of duty not to do so. I feel I have done so above.

  7. Adam,

    I understand. I do think you are struggling, like many people who root themselves in a historical understanding of a term (a situation which I deeply sympathize with, and in fact identify with), against the realities that are constantly changing. In fact, your statement about moving goalposts is not a description of an unwanted possibility of changing zeitgeist, but is the simple reality of popular discourse. We may argue that we should not have to change, or that people should understand the old meanings of words, but that is honestly a dead end. Republicans aren’t Republicans anymore, Calvinists aren’t Calvinists. The person standing around claiming to be a Methodist in the “true” sense, i.e. that piety practiced by the Wesley brothers and friends, and that all of these others are mere pretenders to the name, is understandable, but terribly out of date.

    Since no “in” term is offered, I will suggest one myself. I would argue that what you are describing is what we might call “Historical Evangelical Fundamentalism” or “Princetonian Evangelical Fundamentalism.” Such a group does not meet all of the criteria that I claim that “Evangelical Fundamentalism” does in the modern context.

    I do believe the whole paragraph in which I state what Evangelical Fundamentalists believe is in fact a definition of the term. To include in a definition that “x is true” of something, and then to be told that “x is not true of some who claim to be the thing” is not the same as the outlines of the “no-true-Scotsman fallacy.” I am not saying that “true” EF’s are one way or another, I am saying that according to my definition, which you have argued with, someone who does not fit into that definition does not fall under the heading I am using. It would seem odd that I, having not defined my terms, should have defined them in a way that you disagreed with. Had I not defined my terms, what exactly was it you were disagreeing with?

    However, I do see your point regarding representing your point of view. I will consider how I might amend a line or two of the essay to compensate.

    As for overreaching, perhaps I did. My reading of your statement “To disagree or dismiss this point would be to marginalize a reasonable voice within the camp you are speaking about in order to paint the group as a whole in the most negative light possible” was perhaps too harsh. Upon rereading it, I think I understand more fully your intention.

  8. Indeed on the macro level this is true: “the simple reality of popular discourse”. And would admit to fighting a losing battle any time I go to bat over the historical meaning of the term Fundamentalist. However, without another name, which until a few minutes ago (thank you) was the case, the reality was that the same words meant two different things. Like most movement over time, apparently Fundamentalism has splintered significantly enough to warrant attention to the differences within it. Something I feel I am doing here, and something interestingly enough that birthed fundamentalism in the first place. So, far from being out of date, I would say the “battle over a name” is actually necessary to bring distinctions that are important (which admittedly is subjective–what is important) to light in the popular discourse.

    I am not, however, arguing that all other Fundamentalists are “pretenders to the name”.
    If I were arguing for that, I could more easily see your point regarding how my principles here are out of touch with both reality and the times. However, to be clear, I am merely arguing for a more nuanced understanding of the existence of subsets within the umbrella term.

    Which is also where you and I do not see eye-to-eye on what transpired above as being no-true-Scottsman. If we are arguing over which group has the right to the term, then yeah, there’s no possibility for the fallacy to exist. I, however, am actually arguing for a super-class (Fundamentalist) and sub-classes (those hostile to critical methodologies and those not). This, incidentally, is how I was able to praise the article as a whole, yet come down hard on this one point, whereas absent this understanding of my attempts, my two prongs seemed schizophrenic.

  9. As an aside, I may as well point out what I feel the liberal wing of the modern fundamental evangelical movement (really?!) tend to stress is actually quite old: “In essentials, unity; in the non-essential, liberty; in all things, charity”. Of course, I will admit that there probably isn’t a Christian alive today who would think they don’t adhere to that. That’s why, for me anyway, the original meaning becomes important, it focuses back again on what is essential, and frankly I like the list the original Fundamentalists came up with.

  10. Adam,

    I can see your ideas more clearly now. Perhaps, to be efficient, the two groups might be known as the “Modern Evangelical Fundamentalists” and whichever of “historical” or “Princetonian” makes more sense. Thus, we could speak freely of the “Modern Evangelical Fundamentalist” disdain for historical critical/source/literary methods, while affirming that “Princetonian” or perhaps “Traditional Evangelical Fundamentalists” do not, as a whole, reject these methods.

    • Indeed, I would accept that as an improvement. I struggle for an even better word than “modern”, as it could be mistaken to refer to the historical period of modernity which is too broad here, but I can think of nothing.

  11. I also am not entirely thrilled with “Modern” though I cannot think of a better term myself. Perhaps someone has made this distinction somewhere else and we can steal their terminology.

    Also, might I say, thank you for hammering me on this. It has been very helpful.

    • Good, I’m glad it ended up being helpful, if not a painful process. Your blog, in my opinion, is straddling the line between popular media and scholarly interaction, so you would probably be well advised to make decisions regarding your work with this in mind.

  12. Also, I have to admit, the writer does indeed bear a heavy burden regarding what is and is not important to make clear, whereas the critic is allowed the luxury of “seeing first”. So, …well, so …yours is a tough burden to bear, I guess is my only point and admission here.

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