Why Christianity is still relevant today
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight syas that there is no conflict between Christian belief and scientific knowledge.
Some atheists argue that they can understand why people were once religious, but that they can see no likely excuse to fall for such beliefs now. They claim that religion was our first and worst attempt at science and philosophy and morality, and was successful simply by having the fortuity of getting in first. This entails the belief that as we have progressed in knowledge and understanding we are gradually weeding out religious belief, and that subscription to its teachings is becoming less justifiable with every decade of progression. An atheist friend of mine said this recently:
“The scientific method is the best method that humans have at arriving at truth. Scientists study the natural world and find themselves in a universe that has no evidence for God, and no need for God. Darwin has already banished God from the role as the creator of life, and Astrophysics has banished Him from the role of creator of the earth.”
Here is why I think he is wrong. My position regarding existence in general is that our existence and interaction with the world are fundamentally not knowledge-based, but based on practical perceptions, of which knowledge plays a key part, but is not the totality of our practical perceptions. One of the difficulties I find in sceptics like my friend above is that they treat the world as though our best mental endeavours are knowledge-based, so they focus so much on the word ‘evidence’ that their mental predispositions scarcely amount to much more than the adoption of an evidence-knowledge embrace that rarely gives a full consideration to the other aspects of our thinking. I recall the brilliant American novelist Thoreau talking about a vision of a red sky and the emotions it elicited in him beyond that of mere knowledge. Knowledge of science told him that the cloud is a mass of vapour which showed red because it absorbs all other rays – but that no such knowledge could explain why that red vision excites and stirs his blood.
Ironically neuroscience can now go some way to explaining what is behind his blood-stirring emotional response to a red sky, but it cannot capture the emotions completely, because emotional responses are not something that can be easily bottled with bit by bit knowledge of personality, because the analysis itself broadens out into more emotional responses into something that cannot be captured with componential layering. Thoreau’s warning of an increased knowledge that ‘enriches the understanding’ but that also ‘robs the imagination’ seems quite prescient because for me it wonderfully summarises how our increased scientific knowledge has engendered in us a laziness and a stoicism towards the mind’s ability to reason through emotions. Modern day thinking seems overly preoccupied with a filling in the blanks epistemology (like pieces in a jigsaw) which assumes that such completion (or somewhere near completion) leaves us with no epistemological distance left to run – but that is manifestly not true. What they fail to realise is that the more pieces added to the jigsaw the more it opens up opportunities for broader intellection – an intellection that seeks to retain the very thing that worried Thoreau – the robbing of the imagination.
Perhaps the modern day reticence about embracing this view is a reactionary biteback against many centuries of religious control in which modern man seeks to win back the ground that has been lost over a history of religious authoritarianism that often saw itself as the sole custodian of psychological, philosophical and scientific mysteries. But to think that increases in scientific knowledge have rendered God unnecessary is as silly as a child looking at a waterfall and claiming that gravity isn’t necessary because the water would fall off the edge by itself. Any intelligent man, whether he were alive in Bronze Age Mesopotamia or modern day Europe, world know that knowledge is provisional, and that the claims of the day would be superseded by future discoveries, so he would have no cause for doubting that God is a God of freedom and creativity and expansion.
In some ways the ancient man’s belief that gods of thunder are causing roaring sounds in the sky may have been in the context of the times as rational as our present views about quantum mechanics. In two thousand years time we may look back on our views of quantum mechanics as being very crude and mistaken – we may even scoff at how ignorant we were of physics. Although the man who thought he heard gods of thunder was almost certainly wrong – this says nothing about his intelligence, just the mentality of the people of the time, how intrinsic intelligence is relative to knowledge, and how the real nature of sharp intelligence is being able to see the meta-narrative to any situation. But most importantly it teaches us that we should not get bogged down by what is thought to be absolutely true at any given time. A sensible man would know that a great many of the claims he makes about his present observations will likely be superseded 500 years henceforward, just as a boy who studies subjects in school knows that he is preparing himself for a much more enhanced and developed understanding of the world in adulthood
On this I have two more important points of elaboration to make. One doesn’t even need to be a theist to realise the fatuity behind the claims that our increased understanding of nature squeezes God a little further out of the picture, because this demonstrates an obvious inability to understand that a God-ordained world would entail just as much epistemological progression as a methodologically natural one. And as I’ve already hinted at when mentioning Thoreau’s fear of robbing ourselves of imagination - the conceptual system of scientific endeavour, irrespective of increases in knowledge, is a means of pattern description; some patterns are quite straightforward and are amenable to elegant equations, and other patterns like more complex random sequences only fit the bill as irreducible data so they are not amenable to elegant equations, only statistical descriptions. So however much we increase our understanding of nature we are still working with models of data compression. A fairly obvious corollary of that is that we cannot compress that data to zero; thus science reaches a hiatus beyond which there is only inductive philosophy – and then the question of Aseity looms large, and that question is completely irrelevant to how much or how little we know about nature, because however far we advance there will always be a ’why?’ question that can only return a residue of unanswerable mystery. It is an unchanging question that is just as relevant now as it was in the Bronze Age and will be just as true hundreds or thousands of years henceforward.
But most modern day unbelievers fail to realise this, and they are guilty of susceptibility to Thoreau’s spectre of an enriched understanding of nature being robbed of the imagination, because they fail to see that such understanding leaves a kernel of philosophy still relevant in any age. The truth is, when it comes to explanations of meaning the only thing we have done better than our progenitors is constructed scientific apparatus with which to compress the rich diversity of empirical protocols into theories that permit statistical descriptions. Our views about God, the nature of the human condition, how to treat each other, and how to grow in wisdom are still bound up in Christian principles – most notably, Jesus and St Paul’s teachings. The modern day attempts to strangulate Christian influence are illusory, because it remains a huge part of all the things we value.
Moreover it is a great error to believe that increases in our theoretical constructs lessens the need for an ultimate explanation of why there is something from nothing – it doesn’t. To the uncritical mind scientific exploration is able to close the logical gaps and almost reduce the problem to nothing – and as such they are merely performing their own god-of-the-gaps routine but with the signs reversed. In making stands against the uncritical theists who long for gaps in our theoretical data compression so they can keep God firmly wedged in those gaps, the uncritical atheists have turned their science into a gap-reducing process that fails to take into account what science cannot ever answer, and why empirical protocols will never eliminate the burden of contingency.
And the second important point that needs making (particularly with the above in mind) is that any atheist who believes he is living in a time in which Christianity is on its way out, and that reason and logic and empirical protocols have opened the door for the exiting of Christianity is making a mistake, and this is fairly obvious when one looks at the history of Christianity, how it has changed and evolved, and how it is impacting the world today.
One of the main factors in Christianity is that such a strong truth would naturally find its way into any culture at any time. In Britain at the moment it is thought that church attendance has heavily dwindled, but there are important things to consider here. Firstly, the figures only represent Church of England statistics, which, truly enough, have seen a significant diminution in its number of attendees. And secondly, throughout the country there has been a huge increase in numbers of Pentecostal and Charismatic church attendees – and that figure looks sets to carry on rising as many people are engaging with the Christian faith socially and intellectually, and finding that no differently to the times in first century Palestine, people still have vacancies in their heart - needs and wants and hopes - which Christianity is able to fill.
Of course rises and falls in church engagement vary according to each country, and cultures, and changes within that country, but we can easily take Britain and use it a microcosmic example of a familiar pattern seen around the world. The permissive society inaugurated in the sixties saw the beginning of a radical shift in thinking which was a huge contributing factor in changing the mindset of a post-war Britain that had in many cases had its faith shaken by the wars themselves. Questions of theodicy loomed large, but what followed from the sixties was something altogether worse for Christianity. The permissive liberal agenda that fell upon Britain during the 1960s is, I would say, at the root of much of modern ills – and is hugely responsible for a change of attitude in going some way to destroying hierarchy, patriarchy, respect for authority, perhaps even attitudes towards morality itself, that had kept this nation together for hundreds of years,
The nihilistic assault on society by the Labour Government of the time unleashed anti-establishment forces that have gradually and subtly ripped Britain apart. This has led to a sharp decline of traditional values and of the family unit, and the most significant factors which have been primarily behind the assault have been the diminishing of positive education and the feelings of contempt for it that so many people currently have. Much of our youth today seem to feel imprisoned by their circumstances; many of them live in depressing neighbourhoods and perhaps more importantly, feel excluded and unwanted in society, leading to crime and anti-social behaviour as well as poor education and feeling of hopelessness. Many others suffering from similar feelings of purposeless make fame and the celebrity culture their central goal in life; others strive for career successes and financial acquisition at the expense of anything deep and meaningful. The people of Britain had needed a reaction from the church – and in many ways it has had one.
Given that the underlying message of Christianity is its message of salvation to a fallen world, and its diffusion of grace and love and goodness and kindness into the world, it seems clear that if we are all created with a God-shaped vacancy that only God Himself can fill, the power of grace will find its way into the needs of any person in any situation even if it is not always recognised thus straight away. Humans are very capable of creating some sublimation devices to maintain a semblance of purpose and balance, and this manifests itself in a variety of ways. Embracing the gospel usually takes the kind of form where it is able to fill the heart of whichever type of vacancy one has left in it – thus the sort of Christianity with which people are connecting nowadays isn’t the sort that was so influential in the 18th and 19th centuries – it is a more feminised emotion-based Christianity (like that of Pentecostalism) which finds its strength and its niche in helping people connect with Christ who otherwise feel pretty detached and undervalued in society.
If grace and love and the many other central tenets of Christianity are not found in a search for faith, folk will soon look for variations of them elsewhere – they will tender those interpretations with relocation to another form. And whether it is raising a family, a successful career, courting fame and prestige, or belonging to a gang, they are really only variations of one’s search for meaning and purpose, and ultimately, the pursuit of love and grace in their lives.
Looking for love and grace is what the mind unconsciously does, and this process is so effortless and seamless that one doesn’t have to probe very far to find the same hopes and longings at the heart of the gang member or the fame seeker. Moreover, the pendulum effect may also be connected with whether those able to propagate the gospel are well adjusted to the surroundings and attuned to the needs of the people. The message of Christianity which envelops those qualities I have already mentioned diffuses freely through societies and cultures, empowering individuals within those societies and cultures. The nuanced differences in how the message of grace is diffused is never set out as a problem that can impugn the truth or validity of the Christian faith, at least not when it comes to the successful propagation of Christianity - in fact, its ability to shape itself according to the needs of the world is a congenital component. The aspiration for a world of love, grace, forgiveness, charity and peace is embedded in man's mental substrate, and if he is sane and rational he has no will to remove or even reduce the possibility of doing so. But as I said, cognition has many fuzzy categories affected by physiology (genetics) and environment (nurture and surroundings) and thus a cluster of influences are instrumental in shaping one's ability to recognise grace, act on grace, and pursue the furtherance of more grace.
In Britain recently the main proliferation of Christianity has been with charismatic-style Pentecostalism, which is a shift away from the areas of faith like philosophy (and even theology to some extent) in favour of connecting with people through a focus on intimacy of relationship, spiritual animation, people orientation, and being externally focused in impacting neighbourhoods and communities, and further afield too. This means that as well as large numbers Anglicans and Catholics whose focus is generally more analytical, philosophical and theological and is the bedrock of intellectual Christianity, we have the more emotive and charismatic expressions of faith that I mentioned above, which can and does impact the nation in ways that the more formal intellectual Christianity does not.
A Christianity that is too narrow in its expression will quarantine itself from influence if the needs of the people are less intellectually focused but more intuitive and emotional and personal. Thus the fact that a proportion of the science and academic communities are largely made up of unbelievers has nothing to do with Christianity being less relevant or being on its way out, it is just one of many transitions that we find ourselves in, just as life itself is always in a transitive state as things change and develop all the time. It is a mistake to zoom in on any period of time and claim that an easy and consistent pattern of development will ensue, because we know full well that nature and history is full of black swans which confound our expectations and falsify our predictions.
Currently in some parts of the world new wave atheism is on the crest of a wave, but novelties pass and some other shift in thinking will swing the pendulum back, and then forth, and back again, ad infinitum as people continue to change and find new ways to express themselves. Some people believe the myth that because something appears out of date it must have lost it relevance, but this is a wholly insensible view where Christianity is concerned – after all, how could something that contains the ultimate truths of existence go out of date? If what we’re seeing is simply an alteration in taste and relevance, much like a fashion or trend goes out of date and then emerges again, we cannot hope to find out anything about ultimate truths by assessing the characteristic vogues of any particular time, to do so would be to miss the wider picture. It would be a bit like a man from another planet visiting earth for the first time in January and measuring the temperature in Trafalgar Square every day from January 1st through to August the 1st (increasing over the months from freezing up to 28°), and hypothesising that by December the temperature in Trafalgar Square will be 40°.
When one thinks of Christianity - even in a place like England where belief seems less widespread than other parts of the world, the natural thought is to ascribe the diminution to scientific and cultural progression, but this is probably a misunderstanding of what is happening. In the first place, as we've seen, it is completely illogical to adhere to atheism on the basis of scientific or cultural progression, so if it is true that a proportion are atheist for this reason, I think we have already shown that they would be using their logic poorly. In the second place, one only need think about the fact that before the attack of the sixties England was a Christian society whose structural had not yet faced the hammering of liberalism and the permissive society. When one looks at what has come in its place it hardly seems like a good replacement. Just about everything wrong with society today would find no approval in scripture and just about everything positive in society today finds approval in scripture. I do not mean of course that one cannot work out good and bad systems without reading the Bible, but I am trying to show that pendulum swings towards Christianity or atheism are largely consistent with pendulum swings towards good or bad values, ideas, and aspirations. And given that the corruptibility of either can erode their qualities by subjecting them to negative influences it is important to remember that the more we view a person/people as precious the more we diligently will their betterment, and thus a key factor in progression and how belief changes is whether the fashions and trends of the day are likely to place a premium on valuing people and their well-being as a precious endeavour.
If one reads the dialogues in the gospel of St John - the Samaritan woman at the well, or the healing of the man born blind - moments of pure tenderness shown by Christ, it is easy to imagine that a scientist who lacks tenderness of heart towards humans in general will be no more likely to be Christ-like than a postman, a builder or even a burglar, even if his work in his specialised field generates more interest in academic circles and peer-reviewed publications. In making these contributions he is doing nothing that a Christian of similar abilities cannot do, but presumably the Christian at least in the sense of being of a certain mindset, is doing something the atheist cannot do, for if the same God who arranged the process of aspiration for mankind is the same God who arranges how the new kind of life (the Christ life) is to be spread, then we must be prepared for it to be tough, even like carrying a cross, when unbelief outnumbers belief.
The tenderness of God into man - captured faintly by the likes of George MacDonald, John Milton, John Bunyan, and metaphysical poets like John Donne and George Herbert, may be something that professional analytical scientists do not attempt to house in their psyches – perhaps it is even true that the two can only run contemporaneously if a man is prepared to think of himself of being less before he can be more. Perhaps such self-abnegation is anathema to many in the fields of science whose mother tongue began as being somewhat exclusive and linguistically inscrutable in its solitary analyticity – an analyticity that often kept it apart from the average layman on the street. One must remember that it is only recently that popularisation of science has impacted laymen, so one might justifiably expect another pendulum shift as people come to realise that most Christians are scientifically-minded and see no conflict between their beliefs and their scientific knowledge.
What ought to be clear is that we have no business making claims, as my friend did, to the effect that Darwin has already banished God from the role as the Creator of life, or that astrophysics has banished Him from the role of creator of the earth, and even more absurd, certainly not that a grand theory of everything will banish Him from role as creator of the universe. Because in actual fact, although the scriptures are not in any way scientific, they are not at odds with it either – and in my next message I am going to show how one of our biggest increases in scientific understanding also provides a very good reason why Jesus said we ought to forgive everyone their sins.
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk