Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Faith, Science and the Authority of Scripture

Dogma is always wrong. I'm dogmatic about that.

We had a dear Christian friend for dinner on Monday and we got to talking about the role and authority of scripture.

His reasoning was (at least in part) that he trusts scripture because of who wrote it. He can look at all that Paul achieved and conclude that his words can be trusted for example. Now certainly we now think that Paul wrote less of the New Testament than previously thought. The two letters to Timothy for example, although attributed to Paul, are known to have been written by an "unknown" disciple of Paul's.

Paul was responsible, in large part, for the explosion of the early church and the spread of Christianity across much of the world. This is remarkable not least because he never met Christ, and as a Jewish teacher of the day he would have known the stories and known that Jesus died, but was still convinced enough to  dedicate his life to him. He was also an extremely authoritarian man and espoused views that even the most hardline of modern Charismatic churches won't follow. Twice in the letters we have he says that women should be silent in Church, should wear head coverings, and on slavery one of the things he taught was for slaves to obey  their masters. In his manner and approach to faith, fiery and not to be trifled with, he reminds me of the founder of my own church. A man called Noel Stanton.

So appealing to the reputation (shrouded in history) of those who wrote the scripture (the New Testament at least, much of the Old Testament we can only hypothesise about who actually transcribed the oral history it probably came from) is one form of the argument from authority.

My current thinking around authority is that the worship of authority, rather than the worship of love, is the religion that Jesus hated. The fruit of it is authoritarianism (and all sorts of other horrors). The only true authority is love. Jesus had a special, vehement and burning, anger for the religious leaders of his day. And well, I'm not so convinced that all that much has changed in this regard.

However, an appeal to authority based on action and character is slightly different to an appeal to mere delegated authority (this is right because I say so and I'm allowed to be one of the ones who says so because someone else said so).

The motivation for this kind of thinking, as foreign as it may seem to those who aren't Christian is actually fairly normal. For those with a scientific, rationalist, background or faith your thinking is probably similar. You probably don't fully or even substantially understand the science and reasoning behind evolutionary biology, but understanding and trusting the scientific method you are likely prepared to grant authority in this matter to Richard Dawkins (although less likely to grant the same authority in his gender politics) and his ilk. It's the same thinking, faith (trust) based on reasoning.

Many good and genuine people, with faith of whatever kind, don't wish to hold themselves up as the ultimate authority on anything. So they look to their experience and tribe to find those they can choose to trust.

My personal attitude is based on the understanding that metaphysics (the question of what is) must always give way to  epistomology (how can we know anyway). To hark back to Descartes second meditation and his conclusion, "Cogito ergo sum", the only possible certainty is "I Am". Beyond that the foundation for knowledge cannot be (provably so) certainty but must be uncertainty. We can build models (ideas and world views) and test them out against reality, knowing that we can never be completely right but maybe we can be less wrong. This way of thinking has a name and it is often called "the scientific method".

This means that the question of "ultimate authority" can never be answered. You can't really know, but you can hope and think and search. And that search extends into everything and everywhere, and even if you can't answer the ultimate questions definitively you can hopefully do some good and have some fun. The measure of your faith, the degree of confidence you have in your ideas, is your capacity to trust those ideas based on your experience of putting them into practise.

Understanding that uncertainty is the basis of our knowledge provides an intellectually and psychologically safe way to believe. Our conceptions of spirituality, or any other topic, are free to have life and breath within our imagination and psyche because we are willing to let go of them if they become no longer useful or to evolve them as our understanding grows.

Spirituality in particular can be to us a rich and broad set of metaphors, a higher abstraction for thinking about, discussing, and participating in,the flow and patterns of life. An abstraction we find in the mythos of culture and fiction and woven into reality around us. The collective dreamings and imaginings of all of humanity past and present.

Knowing our way back to ground we are safe to fly. Our conceptions need not be "ultimate truth" to us, but useful abstractions and ways of thinking that we can put weight on but we understand that they are only ideas and ways of thinking that inform and shape our experience. What is truly important is what is here and now right in front of us and the duty and responsibility of caring for those we love -- and that is what we hold to be most real. We are always willing to be wrong and to reevaluate our ideas in the light of new experience.

One precious thing my psychosis taught me is that the way I see the world is fallible, that my memory is fallible and my understanding is fallible. No matter how heartfelt and genuine my belief is, no matter how strong my faith, I can be wrong.

This incidentally also gives us a safe way to trust people. "Trust but verify". We can trust by default, accept by default and love by default. But we keep our eyes open, it isn't a blind faith.

"Beauty can be found in a naked paradox, for it is, in itself, and of itself, a thing which cannot be. And yet is."

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