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Progressive Christianity, Science and Evolution

March 7, 2015

In The Lure of Orthodoxy – 4 I wrote about our movement’s unusual blend of fundamentalist and progressive ideas. These contrasting elements subsisted in tension with one another until things slowed down and our sense of direction became fainter. As on a bicycle or a surfing board, our motion kept us in balance but when it stopped we were forced to chose which side to get off. Most of us have now made a decision and are processing our past accordingly.

When halting between being traditional or progressive, going traditional may seem a more dedicated choice but it’s actually the easier one; it’s like pressing the reset button and it’s done. Being that tradition is always there, if the machine has problems running with a newer operating system, the natural tendency is to default to an older and hopefully more stable one. There is then a sort of rebooting in which the newer “buggy” system is erased and the older “orthodoxy” is installed in its place.

Going progressive, by comparison, is hard work, complicated and risky. It requires constant upgrades, experimentation, new learning and, with it, the chance of getting it wrong. Basically, it takes more thought and effort than following along the traditional (beaten) path. It’s like swimming upstream or climbing a mountain, a lonely and unpopular journey, especially since it’s often labeled as backsliding or heresy.

Most people seek comfort from religion and that which a majority has believed for the longest time is definitely more comforting than uncertain progress. Being part of a crowd is also reassuring; it’s like being in a collective resting place. Individual responsibility disappears there with the thought that so many people simply can’t all be wrong. It’s the peace of conformity, as George Orwell wrote, “orthodoxy means not thinking”. That’s why, whether religious or secular, orthodoxy (tradition) is the default mode for most of us, like a comfortable bed that is hard to get off from.

In the gospels, however, Jesus is quoted as saying that tradition (orthodoxy) made the word of God ineffective (Mark 7:13). This was because tradition itself pretended to be the very word of God. But what is the word of God? Is it a written text, a combination of text and rituals, or a living entity?

We embodied the last option. Our origins, history and overall experience, had the hallmark of change, movement, progress and sailing in uncharted seas, by the propulsion of that living entity. We most definitely believed in a God who was alive, moving and speaking, and that what He had to say today was more important than what people heard Him say in antiquity.

There were some traditional elements, representing a sort of continuity and connection to the past but, apart from that, we were definitely moving in a progressive sense. Being progressive, however, is a very broad designation. Some see it as the way in which God gradually leads humanity away from archaic, tribal models and into a more mature and universal understanding of Him. Others see it, more simply, as the adaptation of Christianity to whatever is socially acceptable and progressive by today’s cultural standards, mainly western. Progressive Christianity is a multifaceted reality lacking internal harmony and including contrasting elements. That’s why it isn’t necessary, nor even advisable, to endorse everything carrying a progressive label.

The point is not to embrace a designation or a denomination defining itself progressive. The point is personal progress and maturation, processing things and leaving behind that which no longer contributes to personal growth. This and this alone is the specific sense in which I see Progressive Christianity as a better option than traditionalism.

Perhaps, having to choose between progressive and traditional Christianity isn’t the ideal but reality is such that it’s nearly impossible to maintain any other course. Whether we are Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists or from any other denomination, within each of them we are faced with a choice due to internal tensions between progressives and traditionalists. We see this daily, playing out in a wide range of hotly debated issues, like priestly celibacy, female ordinations, ethics of marriage, sexuality, ecumenism and more.

A typical example is what’s happening right now within the Catholic Church, with Pope Francis and his progressive reforms. While before, with Benedict XVI, it was the progressive faction to be most unhappy, things have now switched and it’s the traditionalists who oppose Francis. Some are even warning that we might be heading towards a new schism, which wouldn’t surprise, as most schisms were caused by this very tension, inherent to Christianity from its very start. As a matter of fact, Christianity was born of a schism, from a progressive leap out of the old and into the new.

Historically speaking I am convinced that the dialectics of tradition vs. innovation has fulfilled a useful role. Nevertheless, the people caught on either side of the divide, always had difficulty in assessing things fairly. When things are polarized into opposite camps, such as progressive vs traditional, it is common for ideas to be embraced or rejected simply on the basis of which side is promoting what. Just like in politics, between left and right, conservative and liberals, so it is with religion.

Bishops, pastors, writers and theologians are affected by partisan demarcations and usually cater to their particular constituencies. They generally voice and publish only what’s acceptable within their particular camp, advances their career, please their readership and sponsors, or keeps them booked at conferences. When new ideas and trends do appear within Christianity, they will often endorse or oppose them according to how they fit with personal or congregational interests.

Some issues suffer particularly from this polarized state of affairs, so much so that you mainly hear the most extreme and opposite points of view on them. Things like creation vs. evolution, gay marriages, and other gender or science related issues are most affected, with things often getting emotional, intense and beyond dialogue. The fences have been raised so high that there is little on the way of reasonable consideration of the various nuances and possibilities.

Fundamentalists and progressives have so often pitted themselves on the opposite and most extreme sides of the fence that they both lost credibility. While fundamentalists end up looking as if they are still living in the middle ages, liberals make their Christianity look as if it’s all about evolution and gay rights. I know this is an extreme and unfair simplification, so I must explain.

Science and Evolution

From its inception onward, Christian orthodoxy rested on scripture, tradition and an ancient understanding of our world. For it to remain unchanged, the ancient scriptures and cosmology had to be considered historically accurate and scientifically compatible. When disciplines like astronomy, history, archeology, textual criticism, geology, biology or other, began to challenge both of these assumptions, Christianity felt threatened. It reacted defensively because it was so imbued with ancient philosophy and cosmology that it feared it might not survive in a different universe.

It was then that religion began to resist some sciences and some scientists began to accuse it of obscurantism and lack of objective concern for the truth. It was then that religion and science began to polarize into opposite camps, with different views on social, political and economic issues as well. Initially, religion had the upper hand and used whatever influence it had to “control” science and defend its dogmas; then, with the Enlightenment and the modern age, scientific rational thinking gained the upper hand.

For some reason science also became a belief system and acquired, or inherited, some of the same patterns as religion. As intellectuals and people in general abandoned superstitious religiosity to pursue scientific enlightenment, they seemed to transfer into it that same credulousness which they previously had for religion. In essence, science became a new religion, the cult of man and his world, his intellectual ability and scientific achievements.

There was an almost prophetic expectation about science, the belief that it was about to understand everything, that total knowledge was within reach and only a few steps away. That’s when the term “science” became a buzz word, a cliché with which to debunk old religious superstition. That’s when scientists became the new prophets of a new age of reason and discovery, while religious people were a mere remnant from the dark ages.

In popular culture the word science had lost its original meaning and had became descriptive of a new ideology. Eventually, a new term was coined for it, scientism, meaning the philosophical assumption that all true knowledge is the sole privilege of natural sciences, an idea closely related to philosophical materialism, from which also sprang atheism.

While scientism presumed science to be incompatible with religion, real science never made such a claim. Religion, on the other hand, did act hostile towards some sciences and, by so doing, undermined itself. When scientific discoveries challenged religious assumption, had religion been more tolerant and willing to change, it would have discovered that real science was no threat at all.

Truth can never hurt a true faith. All it can do is purge it of impurities, of untrue elements. What science brought into question was not the actual subject of faith, but its human interpretations, which religion had inherited from ancient science (philosophy). Natural science, with its methodology and validation system, could never touch the actual subject of faith, because it can neither demonstrate its existence or non-existence.

Scientifically speaking, the only tenable position is agnosticism, and not atheism, which also requires a leap of faith. It was scientism, not science, who misappropriated the term and presumed to hold the key to all knowledge, even predicting the end of religion. For sure religion had also misappropriated divinity and presuming to have all truths revealed in its doctrines, declared science heretical.

The predicted end of religion, however, never came. Scientism did advance and became part of our modern culture but atheism remained a minority phenomenon. Even countries with atheistic regimes, which made atheism the cornerstone of their compulsory education, have since experienced an almost total resurgence of religion.

Because atheism relied on scientism as much as religion had relied on ancient cosmology, it soon faced that same incoherence which it first exposed in religion. At the end of the day, it’s even harder to sustain atheism than almost any religion, for the simple fact that natural sciences aren’t the only source of truth.

“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”
― Werner Heisenberg

Effects of Scientism

While Europe’s religious wars showed us the results of misplaced devotion to religious doctrines, the wars of the twentieth century did the same for misplaced devotion to scientific doctrines. From unconfirmed Darwinian suppositions, frightful theories had emerged in the field of psychiatry, biology and eugenics. With equal dogmatism to that driving the inquisition, prominent scholars had declared these to be the latest of scientific progress. Advanced countries had already begun to apply these theories to the care of their unproductive citizens, like the mentally impaired, prisoners, orphans and so forth. It was Nazi Germany (and some atheist regimes), however, who took such theories to their logical conclusions and applied them in the most horrific way. Only then did the world realize the total lunacy of such “science”.

As science then distanced itself from the theories behind such horrors, Christianity also distanced itself from its darker past. Wishing to no longer be branded as reactionary and obscurantist, liberal factions began to embrace science as a badge of modernity. By so doing they also fell for scientism and used some of its arguments against their traditional counterpart. A typical example of this is what happened regarding the question of origins. Progressive and liberal Christians embraced the full evolutionary package, while fundamentalists stuck to affirming the historicity of the book of Genesis.

Two wrongs don’t make a right and neither fundamentalism nor scientism make a winning case. History, archeology, textual analysis and documentary evidence haven’t provided any supporting evidence for the Genesis account. There are also indications of myth making, of borrowing from other traditions and there are layers of adaptation. That said, Genesis’ lack of historicity does not automatically validate Darwin. In order for it to work, the evolutionary paradigm needs to be observed and demonstrated, and that’s where there are significant gaps.

Scientism consists on making huge leaps over these gaps, speculating over them and filling them with “logical” deductions. Young earth creationists, instead, use the gaps to argue their point of view, to demonstrate the inadequacy of evolution and the need for divine intervention. The counterpart cries foul and mocks the idea of a god of the gaps but it is science, and not religion, that prevents evolution from shedding its conjectural status.

Of course there are aspects of the theory which are validated but the tone of certainty, with which the whole is proclaimed, smacks of religious dogmatism. Being right on some things doesn’t automatically validate the whole and this goes for both, science and religion. To become an undeniable fact, the evolutionary model needs to add-up everywhere and, most importantly, on the very first question. Never mind the origins of matter, which is still a mystery, but it’s the origin of life that we’re still as far from understanding as we’ve ever been. No empirical evidence has yet enabled natural sciences to rationally calculate a working model. Just in this last century new theories have emerged one after the other and exorbitant sums of money are still spent on research that will hopefully answers the question of origins. At the end of the day it is still a philosophical question and anyone professing to know the answer is actually proclaiming a faith.

Whichever way one works towards the answer, whether it is from natural observation or from an existential quest, none really knows all there is to know. A believer may rightly say that he has experienced God but that does not make his religious branch or “holy” writings the answer to everything. A nonbeliever may rightly say that there is fossil evidence for dinosaurs but that does not make his evolutionary theory the answer to everything either.

Amongst believers this has mainly regarded the fundamentalist vs. progressives debate, with the first unwilling to question the historicity of Genesis and the second unwilling to question anything supposedly scientific. The fact is that while scientific advances must be taken into consideration, some questions raised by fundamentalists are also worth considering. Science does not know the full truth and neither does fundamentalism or progressive Christianity. Ironically each argue their points of view with intense dogmatism, as if they knew it all, but never succeed in convincing the other. The debates always end up becoming philosophical and all we can hear are lots of assumptions, theories and theology.

All this to say that a true search for truth can never be fully captive to any system of ideas. Systems develop around some truth but are never possessors of the whole. Anyone loving truth, though knowing some, must always be aware of being in a quest for the whole. As such he must never lose a humble sense of wonder and childish curiosity.

Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. (1 Cor 8:2)

From → Bible, History, Theology

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