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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  • Paul D.

    Thanks for taking us along on your magic carpet ride!

  • Steve,
    I really appreciated this post. The more I come to accept scientific explanations for phenomena I once attributed to the divine, and the more I start to question (sometimes jettison) unsupportable doctrines like inerrancy, dispensationalism, maybe even the “Fall”, I find myself starting to wonder where the bleeding will stop. Maybe I should just cut to the chase and call it quits on faith. I’ve seen several friends do that. But I know that would be more of an emotional response than a reasoned one. There’s something in Jesus Christ that I’m not ready to give up on. And I’m trusting that this faith won’t go unrewarded in the end.

  • nick b

    I also appreciated this post – dare I say mystical, with a good dose of humility.

    It reminded me of an article by Yoder: “Patience as Method in Moral Reasoning: Is an Ethic of Discipleship Absolute?” in which he responds (in a non-mystical) fashion to those who say that his theology is “absolutist”. He states that his views are not relativist (the presumed opposite of absolutist), but rather that they exhibit a multifaceted “patience”. He goes on to describe a variety of levels of “patience” (19 actually) – too many to list here – but his #2 is a “corrective patience” – and he suggests that, “Thus there will often be proper corrective uses of arguments that are not ultimately valid. We might call this ‘the right use of wrong theology'”.
    Or earlier he suggests: ‘many needed arguments are true in their context but not finally.’
    Or another lovely quote later under the “modest patience of sobriety in finitude: “…. our concrete decision making …. must always take place under conditions of finite knowledge; but the certainty in which we have to act one day at a time must never claim finality. Our recognition that we may be wrong must always be visible.”

    I found his words, and yours refreshing.

  • nick b

    and i guess i’d love (in a future post) to hear more about your “ostracization for my sojourning” – hey – at least when you are persecuted you know you’re doing something right ; )

  • Anonymous

    OSTRACIZATION?! What am I, chopped liver?!

  • Great courageous statement, Steve. I too think Christianity (free of the ‘error of infallibility’) is the vehicle par excellence for religious living (and by that I mean the real search for God).

    I think no religion has looked so hard at its foundations and found so much that is man-made and yet stayed the course of faith in God as has that active and ‘outermost rim’ of Christianity (as you say – I would correct you by calling it the ‘innermost soul’).

    This discussion would be enhanced if a sincerely practicing Muslim were to come onboard and affirm that he has a faith like yours, Steve, even in conjunction with real doubts of significant bits of his Qur’an. Or a practicing Jew who holds firm to God even while admitting that the structure of his Torah is but a tissue of post-exilic redaction (as Wellhausen and many others have aptly shown).

    • John, thanks for an excellent comment. Indeed, our faith has since the
      beginning been a matter of self-analysis and revision. Our faith is a
      journey and not a destination. The great tragedy of fundamentalism is that
      an attempt to call this journey off is its goal #1.

      I absolutely love your spatial adjustment of my analogy: I was thinking
      two-dimensionally, but you’re looking at the heart of faith that others in
      their religions also try to reach. I also agree that these conversations
      would be enhanced by such participants as you mentioned. Thanks again.