Monday, December 27, 2010

The Desire To Explain

According to Stanley Hauerwas, modernity is characterised by a "desire to explain". This is why the scientific method is given pride of place when it comes to deciding what is true. In the link I posted below, Ricky Gervais says he is an atheist because "there is no scientific evidence" for the existence of God. Whether Gervais's statement is true is another matter, but say that it is. Say that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest God exists. Does this fact, or indeed lack of "facts", require us to disbelieve the existence of God?

A phrase quoted by Merold Westphal sums up the position of scientism - "Anything my net doesn't catch isn't a fish". In other words, "If my method can't examine and explain it, then "it" can't be true." There is a subtle move here from a position that says "Science gives us knowledge of reality" to one which affirms, along with Gervais and many others, that "Nothing but science gives us knowledge of reality." William James says of this latter position,

a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from ackowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.

Stanley Hauerwas says that the "desire to explain" is pervasive within the church. It is an act of unhealthy control, especially when it comes to Scripture. We apply our scientific methods to the Bible in order to "get behind" the text and uncover what's really there. And of course it goes without saying that "anything my net doesn't catch isn't fish." That is, anything my hermeneutic doesn't uncover isn't relevant. 

When it comes to the interface of Scripture and sermon,  Mogwai fear satan Hauerwas fears explanation:

I fear that attempts to "explain" or "translate" Scripture too often manifest our attempt to make God conform to our needs. Of course God does love us, but his love usually challanges the presumption that we know what we need. The presumption that the gospel is "all about us" too often leads us to think "good" sermons are those "I got something out of." But sermons, at least if they are faithful to Scripture, are not about us - they are about God. That a sermon should direct our attention to God does not preclude that we should "get something out of it." But you will have an indication that what you got may be true if you are frightened by what you heard.

If explanations aren't the goal, then what is? "Showing connections" is the Hauerwasian answer. I won't explain what he means by that, partly because it would defeat the purpose of this post, but mostly because I don't know what he means by that.

For Hauerwas, the truth which all methods -- including the scientific method -- ought to point towards is that the world is "judged and redeemed by Christ". The goal of all truth-telling, then, is to help us develop the "imaginative skills" so that we can see the world in this light. Hauerwas applies this specifically to sermons, but numerous connections can be made between his statement and other disciplines.


  1. The first thing that strikes me is the lack of worth in the fishing net analogy. If each time you throw out your net you catch only fish and not mermaids you may not have proved a lack of mermaids but there comes a point where you must assume they arnt there unless you can actually build satisfactory evidence. for mermaid read infinite number of possible propositions.

    I felt that the Ricky Gervais article was uncharacteristically humble and sensitive. The god question always ends up being about what we mean when we say god, its linguistic. Which means that any non believer can always be attacked for rejecting the wrong definition of god, which is is what i think you are doing here. in my honest yet forthright opinion.

  2. The fishing net analogy certainly doesn't have any worth when you interpret it like that. Who said anything about mermaids? We're after fish here, and the point of the analagy is that there is more than one net that can catch them. You're actually verifying the analogy's worth when you say "satisfactory evidence", because I assume by that you mean the kind of evidence that only your net can catch, so to speak.

    There is a Creator/Creation distinction that you appear to be misunderstanding. It is reasonable to expect science to tell us things about creation, but is it reasonable to expect science to tell us about the creator? An art scholar may be able to tell you of all the intricacies of the Mona Lisa, but he may be able to tell you next to nothing about Leonardo Da Vinci. For that knowledge we need a different sort of net. (okay, so perhaps NOW you have an analogy with a lack of worth!)

    As for the god question ending up in linguistic debate, I think that's quite all right. As I've quoted here a couple of times, "our words create our worlds." Our words about god are vital, and so wrong words about god are to be rejected by believer and non-believer alike. Although to say that I "attacked" Gervais is very harsh, I think.

    Of course as a Christian I believe the word "god" is inextricably tied up with the person of Jesus. This, by the way, is something that left me puzzled by Gervais' article. He mentions Jesus in his piece, but what did he do about Jesus as his atheism developed? Did Jesus simply cease to exist as well?

    Anyway, honest yet forthright opinions are more than welcome. Thanks.

  3. ok. well i dont know about the fish net thing, maybe its being stretched :). i guess anyone can say that they have this outher kinda of net which makes the world clearer etc etc. easy to say. i don't really take the 'art scholar' argument. god isnt like art, it doesnt require another way of thinking. he does or does not exist, its not about how you look at it and about how much you believe it. even more so with the jesus question. its all very scientific, with historical claims and such. like Gervais says. you need to actualy blieve that the christian historical claims happened. and that requires measured investigation by clever people. its not something one decides on ones self. just like one doesn't just decide by ones self that Socretes had red hair and that hanibal could fly a bit.

    Gervais has no idea if jesus lived, or what he said or what he did or if he performed miracles. and neither do you or i. how could we possibly? in the same way i have less and less idea about people and events the further we go back in history. and even then, what do i really know about what contemporary figures like Lady GaGa does or is like, even though im bombarded with information about her. information gets more and more cloudy as we go back in history and mystical claims must be first approached with extreme scepticism. we should only believe them if the evidence is fully there, and frankly if we are advised to believe by the most learned and clever people of our day. we can decide for ourselves if we think that a sun rise is beautiful, but we cant decide for ourselves if Jesus or merlin did magic.

    The point is that all information is mediated. There is no other type of evidance that works here, a lot of faiths transform peoples lives for better , sometimes worse. a lot make them happy and fullfiled. but this is not the type of evidence which is applicable, if one is in search of actually metaphysical reality rather than a lifestyle or social model

    as Gervais says, atheism is nothing if it is not humble, nothing if it is not the least arrogant of world views, for all that it is is an assertion that we know less than theists think they know

  4. I had a rather lengthy response lined up here, but then I realised something: I'm trying to explain, which is the thing this post is fighting against.

    But here's the real truth: I wouldn't really be trying to explain (or defend) my position to you, qmonkey, but to myself. This may shock and disturb, but I think like you some times. Why, then, do I believe?

    I think it's the story Christianity tells that makes it impossible for me not to believe. There is a resonnance that I can't ignore. Creation, Fall, Redemption. Life, death, life again. Justice instilled, justice abandoned, justice restored. I find the story of Christianity too compelling to turn away from. I find the story of Jesus too compelling to turn away from.

    Of course I'm aware that just because a story is compelling doesn't make it true. But I'm also aware that we live extremely storied lives, and that while atheism may offer the least arrogant world view, it offers no story. That's very problematic.

  5. that's very honest of you. doesn't seem worth while to flag up the obvious problem that depending on where you are in the world, your parentage, your culture you'd find a different (and conflicting) religious story and faith compelling. This surely is more problematic than a world view with no story. though i guess the 'story' of atheism is the story of discovery and science without prejudice. I can't watch 'wonders of the solar system' or BBC's 'Planet Earth' without seeing a beauty and a story and a narrative.

  6. Right. If one of us was born in Mecca we'd probably be having a different discussion right now, or no discussion at all. Of course that's as true for the atheist as the theist, so Im no sure what it proves other than that our culture and heritage shapes us.

    And yes, we can certainly agree on the beauty of 'Planet Earth'. In fact David Attenborough stands as one of the great evidences that god may not exist (though I believe he identifies himself as agnostic rather than atheist).

  7. our culture and heritage shapes us, yes. and as Gervais says. the main reason he's an atheist is because his parents were. the main reason someone is a Christian/muslim/hindu/unitarian/communist is because their parents are. not in all cases. but 90%+ depending on your chosen survey.

    as you say . this proves nothing with regard the existence of god (how ever defined). It does how ever seriously hurt the Christian thesis. Which requires the individual to make free and fully informed decisions upon the validity and factuality of miraculous claims 2000 years ago in a far away place.

    which is next to impossible, as all such information is mediated by chosen experts/priests

  8. So what you're saying is, the only kind of knowledge that can speak truthfully about reality is scientific knowledge. The only net worthy of the title net is the one called "science".

    You described science as being "without prejudice", but the story of the world that you tell basically marginalises the majority of human existence, that is, human existence before science - B.S. you might like to call it :-)

  9. i think the word science can be unhelpful and distracting, it conjurers up ideas of men in white coats squeezing every thing possible into a test tube, every great work of literature and music tested with litmus paper.

    a more appropriate word perhaps, is academic. religious claims and stories can be investigated academically, by clever people and institutions, with peer review, checks and balances. I don't mean that a parable or a myth or a song can be investigated this way, but an actual claim of factual occurrence can, and is. You must admit this, search amazon for 'the case for the resurrection' or some such titles you will read academic cases put forward for this as a litteral event.

    out of interest, what other kinds of relevant knowledge are you talking about? and if you decided that , say, jesus didn't live or say or do anything like what we read in the bible, would those other types of knowledge still be enough for you to be a christian?

  10. I guess the way I see it, extremely clever people have done the "research" and concluded that Jesus has risen from the dead. Other extremely clever people have concluded otherwise. The academic/scientific evidence, then, appears to be neutral (though I guess there is nothing neutral about these things).

    One of the main "kinds" of relevant knowledge I'm talking about is other people. Anyone who claims to know Jesus will almost always have known another Christian first. Person-to-person knowledge is complex and risky, of course, but ultimately it is the only kind of knowledge that really matters to us.

    I'd like to to more "work" in this area, expecially as it relates to the church and role in making God known, but for now I remain quite cluelss and thus unlikely to be able to stand up to your impending scrutiny! Consider me debunked before you even try.

  11. :) i didn't plan for this to run and run, with me spaming you. but its got evermore interesting :)

    So, for you.. extremely clever people have investigated, and determined that Jesus rose from the dead. For you, at the heart of your beliefs is a mater of academia, a mater of science (though, as i say, that word possibly clouds the issue). We are of the same mind, we ARE using the same fishing net.

    can you concede me that point? and to talk of 'other ways of thinking' and 'other forms of truth', while philosophically interesting, in the mater at hand, only serve to confuse and obfuscate.

    So both of us have the same net when it comes to determining whether or not to be a Christian, we are not making personal choices here, we do not personally KNOW or can be certain in any way about the resurrection. We just believe that some clever people are correct, and are convinced by them. This is perfectly natural, and it is what we do in all walks of life. My knowledge and acceptace of evolution or heliocentrics or germ theory is based on the fact that the overwhileming majority of clever, educated and peer reviewed/challenged people accept it , likewise all of the complex sciences like physics and chemistry, likewise historical analysis.

    So in that light, i look around at the clever people and ask the question. If i was to do a survey of all university professors in every country in the world (there are around 9000 unis), i have no doubt that the overwhelming majority would say that they didn't think that the resuection happened, of those that did think it happened, i would bet that the overwhelming majority of them had Christian parents and were brought up believing it as important and self-evident truth. Which whilst not being enough to ignore their view, they are in serious danger of post rationalising their already strongly held religious beliefs. (think of the uni professors and clever folk how are creationists, the same post rationalisation is in evidence)

    I know i wouldn't get 100% agreement on it, but then i wouldn't get that on any issue. But on the basis that statistics show that the more education one has then the less likely they are to convert to Christianity... i would rule out the resurrection as a likely historical occurance.

    i may of course be wrong, because ideas and opinions of clever people sometimes change over time. but the point is, its not a personal opinion or choice i have on the resuection (that would be VERY dangerous and delusional), my view is informed by academia. And we are BOTH using this net, as you hint in the first paragraph of your last comment

  12. Not quite, qmonkey. Not quite.

    My point was that "academia" or "science" cannot determine the issue. If it could, then why are some people who use the "net" Christian and some non-Christian?

    I'm not a Christian because I stand on the shoulders of people who are/were really clever. I'm a Christian for the reason I stated a few comments ago. Of course since the CHristian story is history I should expect it to "check out" in terms of its historicity, and nothing so far has lead me to believe that the disciples just made the whole thing up.

    As for your uni professors, how many of them would reject the history of the resurrection because they come to the question with the presuppossition that people are NEVER resurrected? What is the basis for such a presupposition? Where are they getting their "givens"?

    If the creation of the world can happen one time, why not new creation? THe world we live in is an impossibility. I shouldn't expect a story like the recurrection to be any different.

    I think I might have said this to you before, but accepting the history of the resurrection is not like accepting the history of any other event. To accept it means everything is now seen differently.

  13. Time well spent. It's always nice when these discussions remain human(e) rather than the usual tendency to treat things as a debate between two computers.

    Neither of us might be as right as we might like to think, but neither of us might be as wrong as the other would like to think, so these discussions are always worth having.