Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Christian World Views. Part 1: Meanwhile, back in the false dichotomy zone...

The recent moderate sized tsunami of antiestablishmentarian feeling in Western societies has picked up many evangelico-fundamentalist Christians and carried them along with it. This is not surprising really: Since the industrial revolution Western Christianity has, in stages, become more and more culturally marginalized, most notably during the 1960s; During that decade Christians at last woke up to fact that the Western intellectual establishment could no longer be identified as even nominally Christian. By way of a reactionary protest there was among some Christians a revival of young earthism, fideism and a generalised form of gnosticism stressing an inner light "baptism" of gnosis (often identified as "Baptism of the Spirit"). This was effectively an anti-intellectual, anti-reason reaction against the intellectual status quo. These reactionary Christians were  saying "You've rejected us, but we don't need your profane reason, we have our own holy knowledge". They stressed the special "supernatural" revelatory element of Christianity either in the form of scripture or as gnosis, sometimes both. This pair of revelatory mediums were contrasted over and against mere profane human knowledge. In many ways this imposed revelation vs human knowledge dualism was one of the keynote assumptions in the weltanschauung of the new antiestablishmentarian Christianity.

But  there was a telling sign that this claim to privileged spiritual knowledge was not entirely without spiritual pathology: The relations between the gnostics and the scripturalists were often tense. The scripturalists, who made emphatic claims about endeavoring to follow God's Word down to the last jot and tittle ("The whole counsel of God") were often very suspicious of those claiming to have an inner-light encounter with the divine, an encounter which often appeared to short cut the scriptural route to sacred knowledge. In return the gnostics thought the scripturalists to be lacking a full gospel experience of God (I suspect that systematic personality differences between these two groups had a bearing on these mutual suspicions). The gnostics might claim that theirs was a Biblically based experience and that there was no tension between inner revelation and scripture, but the strongly reformation identifying scripturalists were not always convinced. For a start gnostic Christians often betrayed a troubling fideist skew to their thinking; for there was one thing that the scripturalists prided themselves on and that was not having given up on reason, at least what they thought of as reason; to them the Bible was a kind of "axiom" on which a superstructure of sacred reason was to be constructed. But it seldom to occurred to them, however, that in order for scripture to be interpreted in the first place, this huge highly complex "axiom" necessarily makes myriad calls on a rich cognitive and cultural complex of innate assumptions - it is the latter which has hidden up in it a very human looking axiomatic base. But blind to this truism the scripturalists pressed on claiming that their's was a world-view in which reason mattered; but, they claimed, it was "Bible based reason" and therefore all but beyond contradiction. So they thought: Scripturalism has given us the curious Genesis literalists who use the Bible as a sacred "axiomatic" starting point and then go on to conclude that the cosmos is a mere 6000 years old cosmos, or that whole cosmos rotates around the Earth (geocentrism) or that the Earth is flat. In order to gain a kind of intellectual parity with the profane academic establishment the scripturalists will say that their's is an equally valid intellectual exercise, an exercise based on the same set of data protocols, but instead those protocols are accounted for by a narrative derived from a Biblical starting point, rather than a profane "secular" starting point. So they think.

It is undoubtedly true that one's world view influences how one superimposes a coherent theoretical narrative on the myriad protocol "facts" and experiences which bombard us daily. But where the scripturalists (and also many gnostics) err is in their claim that the Bible is their starting point. No; their starting point is a Western world view and not a Biblical world view - after all, they are not first century believers, they are 21st century believers and they see the Bible through a 21st century cultural lens. As the saying goes, one can't see one's cultural prisms without great effort, but rather one effortlessly sees through those prisms.  

I would propose that there are two major cultural prisms found among Western Christians through which they see the world. The background assumptions of their world view are taken for granted and in most cases are taken on-board without serious thought. Both of the topics below, which deal with material far more fundamental than fundamentalism, have been on going and relentless themes in my blogs and really I'm just summarizing what I have already said elsewhere.

The Error of Scripturalism
In evangelico-fundamentalism the Bible is taken to be literally God's Word rather being the medium or channel through which sacred meaning is quickened. The Bible is “God’s word” only in as much as it is a conduit for information about God’s personality and salvation; it is part of the divinely managed signalling medium through which revelatory information passes to the recipient and takes root in his/her psyche. As I have pointed out many times before natural language, such as we find employed in the Bible, doesn’t contain meanings; rather it solicits meaning by way of connotation. That is, it triggers meaning in the cognitive association complex of the reader, an association complex that is a function of various cognitive traits, cultural influences, and histories. But it is actually very difficult to escape a way of talking about natural language as if words literally "contain" meaning. They don't contain meaning; meaning is generated by the recipient as a result of those words impacting is his/her psyche. Psychologically speaking we are often conscious only of the cognitive output of meaning. Our conscious mind gets delivered the text packaged along with its meanings; we are in effect seeing the back end of an unconscious process rather than the front end and therefore it appears as if meanings have emerged out of the words rather than our cognitive complex generating those meanings. I often hear sermons where it is remarked that it is possible to get so much meaning out of scripture; what is in  fact happening here is that so much meaning is being put into scripture

This whole process, if it is to deliver theological truth, only has a chance of doing so if it is under immanent divine management from start to finish. Unfortunately as a rule Western Christians often have a “natural forces” vs “divine interventions” view of God’s relation to his world. They therefore find the immanence of God difficult to take on board. Because of God’s intimacy with his created order the Bible is organically jointed to the rest of creation and transmits and delivers information like any other signalling medium in God’s world.

Of course, the process of Biblical information delivery can, and clearly does, go wrong (as does any other signalling system) at any stage along the transmission line especially at the destination where interpretations are proactively generated. Therefore the Bible doesn’t deliver certainty. Trouble is, the insecure conspiracy theory touting fundamentalist mentality is liable to feel that anything less than 100% truth equates 100% error – a position which we know to be untrue. Information carrying signals need not return the statistics of certainty to convey information; e.g. we can’t be absolutely certain when we board an aircraft that it won’t be involved in a major crash, but nevertheless we consider the safety statistics of air travel to convey information about high reliability, and this we regard as useful information.

We can see that fundamentalist theme park manager Ken Ham is light-years away from understanding just how natural language works when he says this in one of his blogs:

Compromising Genesis with evolution and millions of years undermines the authority of the Word, because this involves taking ideas from outside of Scripture and forcing those ideas into Scripture. When they do this, Christians are making themselves (fallible man) the authority over God’s (infallible) Word! Basically we’re saying that we know more than God and that we can reinterpret and edit His Word to adjust it to man’s ideas. But a Christian should never knowingly compromise God’s Word.

What Ken fails to see is that meaning is ultimately sourced in the recipient. i.e. the reader.  Meaning doesn’t exist inside the symbols of the transmitted Biblical text: Meaning is an extrinsic property rather than an intrinsic property of the Word. As such the Word is a trigger of meaning and therefore it is fallible (wo)man that assigns meaning – but it is an infallible God who manages this highly complex process of meaning delivery. The irony for Ken Ham is that in a sense meaning always comes from the reader - that is, the profane human agent! But that agent must be rightly primed in order to make the right interpretation. Of course, I don’t expect the Ken Ham's of this world, who so often look for clear grounds to file charges of heresy, to ever understand this. Anxiety over epistemic insecurity will likely mean that fundamentalists will continue to use fallacious and extravagant claims about following scripture to the letter without compromise. Such claims are a common way in which fundamentalists parade their piety to themselves and intimidate other believers. Scripturalism is based on a false dichotomy: that is the Word as revelation vs Man's thinking: It's a false dichotomy because Scripture is a seamless part of the rest of God's creation.

Some links on the nature of language:

The God vs natural forces dichotomy 
I have aired this dichotomy many times over on this blog.  I'm of the opinion that it is the single most important covert philosophical paradigm explaining why many Christians, particularly the de facto intelligent design community, bulk at the concept of evolution. The basic idea here, I submit, goes something like this: If  "natural" law and disorder processes of physics contain sufficient information to generate life then that means natural forces did it and it follows that God  intelligence didn't do it. Therefore we want to believe that natural forces didn't do it, but instead  intelligence did it. The basic dualism underlying this thinking, thinking which sets God against the very "natural forces" he has created, becomes clear among de facto IDists who are very explicit about rejecting the possibility that "natural forces" somehow contain the informational wherewithal to evolve life. See below for a list of American continent IDists who think along on these lines

Casey Luskin: See
Kirk Durston: See
Vincent Torely: See
Gordon Mullings: See
Robert Marks: See
Cornelius Hunter: See
Luskin, Ewart and Marks: See:

See also the ill-conceived explanatory filter which is the epistemological expression of de facto ID's "intelligence-of-the-gaps" thinking:

Fundamentalists are not so strong on this dichotomy as are the IDists, because they often invoke theological paradigms to contradict evolution - such as their view on the relation of the fall to physical death. However fundamentalists also, from time to time, display this instinctive culturally based dualism. See for example fundamentalist Jason Lisle here:

That this dichotomy is fundamental to Western thought is suggested by the fact that atheists often show signs of holding to a similar paradigm. Evangelical atheists feel obliged to prove at all costs that evolution must be the outcome of known law and disorder processes; if they think they can show this then they feel justified in claiming that the origin of life dispenses with a need for God in favour of "natural forces".  Richard Dawkins, for example, has remarked that evolution allows him to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. That, I suspect, is because he views the whole question through a dualistic prism whereby the "natural forces" inherent in law and disorder explanations are contrasted over and against the old divine magical explanations where God just speaks stuff into existence with a few mighty words (Abracadabra!). So, just as de facto IDists believe that a gap in law and disorder explanations must be filled with intelligent agency, atheists, conversely, believe that in filling the gap with a "natural" law and disorder account must mean there is no need for God intelligence to have done it! The dichotomy is common to both sides of the debate!

* By law and disorder I'm referring to the two contrasting mathematical tools we have to describe the universe, namely algorithms and statistics. 

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