Asymptotic faith journeys

The tendency toward reductionism is simultaneously one of the most tempting and problematic aspects of the laudable task of seeking explanations. The “thrill of the hunt” is the expectation that the quarry will be found and conquered. It’s not surprising, then, that the joy of drilling down to the bottom of a matter sometimes continues quite past the bottom.

A few years ago I wrote on this blog, “Modernists feel satisfied to have discovered the natural causes, the how’s, and seem convinced that this abolishes [absolute] meaning,” or the why’s. When we repeatedly discover that there are prosaic physical explanations for things we previously considered purely metaphysical, inductive reasoning leads us to discount more of the metaphysical  than may be necessary. This is one of the much-discussed dangers with God-of-the-gaps apologetics, in which the Creator is made to stand on a shadow in our understanding such that the more light is shed in the room, the smaller He must become in order to remain in the shadows.

Mark Vernon’s recent summary of Cunningham’s criticism of “ultra-Darwinist” reductionism in Darwin’s Pious Idea makes an important distinction: “[U]ltra-Darwinism is empty because it doesn’t explain, it explains away.” Occam’s razor is a principle guiding the formulation of hypotheses, but by no means an inviolable law of logic. When some who champion science and reason triumphantly proclaim that their unsurprising observations of the cold, pitiless, and indifferent natural world are a definitive refutation of absolute meaning, they’re essentially advocating that Occam’s razor should not stop at the rope but continue slicing away at our own wrists.

I have developed an understanding of many aspects of my religion, and of religion in general, that is much more organic and natural (in all senses, I hope) than that of most Christians I know. I now realize the trial and error that got us here, and ever increasingly I am aware that very few of the “just-so stories” we grow up on in the church are really “so” at all. It is completely understandable that many who come down the road as far as I have will think they see the handwriting on the wall and jump out of the sinking ship. I get it. And at this point in my faith journey, I doubt God Himself will ultimately lay the brunt of the blame on them for it.

Yet I have found at seemingly the outermost rim of Christianity something intangible that convinces me not to stray too far beyond it. Some will cynically conclude that I have not gone far enough in my quest for the truth; I’ve allowed myself to stay strapped in by sentimental and cultural ties. But maybe some of those ties exist for a good reason: it seems to me that indiscriminately severing all ties is no less an emotional response, and is usually the reflex of the bitter (who become even more embittered upon their crash landing). Granted, there is cultural comfort here within my Christian faith, and there are external pressures that will not suffer an abandonment of faith without some unhappy ramifications, but I’ve already suffered enough ostracization for my sojourning that it’s apparent I have precious few shreds of respectability left. Whatever else I am, I’m a lover and seeker of truth, and if I ever see proof that Christianity or theism are untruths, I assure you that I will be happier to be undeceived than to remain as “deluded” as most evangelicals and all atheists think I am.

Moreover, my childhood faith has not been a hindrance for me, but has enabled me to square up my shoulders, steadfastly walk away from easy answers, and advance toward “the void”. And still I find that the relationship of my faith’s motion to the non-faith many embrace is surprisingly asymptotic (in the popular rather than the strictly geometrical sense). Perhaps a better way of expressing it mathematically would be to say that I find that no matter how many times evidence and counter-evidence divides and subdivides it, my faith never reaches zero, because I do not accept a modification of faith as a subtraction, but as a reanalysis. Perhaps this is because it’s like subtracting apples from oranges: if my faith were a conglomeration of pieces of evidence, all the counter-evidences I’ve found and am still finding could quite conceivably wipe it out. But my faith is of a different substance than mere alleged facts strung together and clutched tightly until snatched away: all doctrine and theology, which are what too many Christians mean when they say “truth” and “faith”, are merely descriptions of something Other, and I cannot discount my encounters with that Other even when the cleverest descriptions of it that theologians have extracted from the Bible crumble under critical scrutiny.

I’m fairly roundly convinced that humanity’s love interest in truth is not fully requited, but she certainly strings us along, doesn’t she? My conservative Christian friends, my atheist friends, and I will have to go on as best we can, and for that reason I hope we can all learn to step more lightly for humility’s sake. As for me, I am confident that if God does exist and He loves the truth as much I think He does, the “void” I approach is empty only of untruths and filled up with a Truth that has requited my love, and that every step I take into the void will be a step closer to Him.

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