Sunday, August 30, 2015

Debate Review 1: Is There a God? - Rick Warren v. Sam Harris

Below are my reactions to the informal debate between Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and the neuroscientist Sam Harris on Religion and Atheism, which was published back in 2007. This is intended to be the first review in a series of debates between prominent atheists and theists. The link to the debate is below:

Bridges in the Debate for Mutual Understanding
Hmm, while an interesting debate, I think there are a few valuable take-aways for those reading. First, you'll often find religious debates revolve around the same issues without really moving forward.

For instance, in this debate Sam Harris opens up to an understanding of spirituality that is couched in reason. That's something that both sides should really explore further, as it seems like a great bridge.

Additionally, Rick makes some statements regarding wonder, order, beauty, etc. that would be helpful both when talking about our understanding of the universe, and in the Christian understanding of God. Another bridge.

The Inadequate Treatment of Miracles
However, a number of statements were made (particularly by Rick) that were either unhelpful, in my opinion, or were not unpacked sufficiently. For instance, he appealed to miracles as a reason for faith, but did not address Sam's statistical or cultural concerns surrounding the phenomenon.

It would be helpful if miracles were explained in their theological and phenomenological sense: If miracles are (or were) real, then they have been directed by the Deity. If they have been directed by the Deity, then they were performed within that particular cultural context (time, place, etc.) for a reason, presumably as part of some greater story. And, if they occurred for a particular place and time, then they are not repeatable.

This is relevant, as it makes them statistically undetectable and experimentally untestable, but not necessarily any less real. They simply move from the realm of the natural sciences to the realm of the social sciences. In this realm, their entire context must be taken into consideration, including the context of the witnesses.

It is still possible that their occurrence is bogus, but it must be recognized as possible that their occurrence isn't. Honestly, when placed in the study of social sciences, even their non-occurrence may mean something theologically relevant.

The Value of Mythic and Poetic Language in Scripture
The problem is that both sides attempt to argue from a natural sciences standpoint. And in this realm, Rick Warren is severely disadvantaged. There are many faithful Christians who believe that Genesis (esp. ch. 1-11) is primarily mythic poetry, that while borrowing from similar tales in other cultures, is still transformed to say something real and true about the relationship between God, humanity and Creation.

It is helpful here to note, that when I use the word "myth," I do not mean the popular understanding of the word as a story that's made up. Instead, myths are generally structured stories which often call on a variety of sources and often are transmitted orally before being written down. Such stories often convey a deeper human truth. It makes sense to me that if God has revealed Himself to humanity through the stories in scripture, then he would use the cultural tools available to both reach as wide an audience as possible and maintain relevance over a long period of time. These tools would include poetry, wisdom sayings, songs, mythic stories, biographies, etc. I see no reason why He would be constrained to modern notions regarding scientific or historic accuracy, as these things have not been a major concern for humanity during most of its history.

But Rick doesn't acknowledge this. He simply says he believes in the literal reading of Genesis and doesn't back that claim up in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

The Differences Between Faith, Belief, and Dogma
Additionally, Sam seems to understand faith as the opposite of reason, and faith and dogma as equivalent. He questions why God would allow someone, born within a tradition, to be punished for believing that tradition. Rick doesn't challenge him on this, but I will. I would argue that dogma is defined as an immovable position which disregards any subsequent discovery or fact. Faith, on the other hand is much more malleable.

In fact, faith even maintains room for doubt! If you notice, almost every major "hero" of the faith in the OT has doubts at some time or another (Job, Moses, Gideon, Elijah, Jonah, the writers of half the Psalms, etc.). In each case, God never punishes the doubter. Instead, the doubter comes out stronger for the experience.

For the person born in their own tradition, they are not judged because they don't believe in Jesus (especially if they have never encountered Him). They are judged according to how they faithfully adhered to their understanding of goodness. Scripture tells us that every human being betrays that understanding eventually, and that makes our reconciliation with God (through Christ) most necessary.

Faith is better defined then, not as belief in defiance of reason, but instead as trust founded on reason, experience, and revelation. One may question their beliefs continuously, and still remain faithful. In fact, whenever new situations, knowledge, or experiences arise, it makes sense to question our assumptions. And this is absolutely OK, and I would argue, is a sign of wisdom. However, I have still found reason to have faith, and because of this, I will do my best to be faithful.

My Further Thoughts on These Issues
Note: To give a bit of background on my opinion. I am a Christian, and I believe in the God whose attributes include transcendence, imminence, and goodness. I believe God is, and has been, active in the cosmos. And I believe in objective truth. However, I also understand that truth and fact are often different things.

There is allegorical truth, poetic truth, wisdom-truth, ethical truth, etc. But in the realm of fact, there is scientific and historical fact. I do believe truth needs to be informed and understood in terms of scientific and historical fact, but I do not believe that truth needs to rest entirely within the realm of fact.

In my own study, I have come to the conclusion that the bodily resurrection of Jesus fits into the realm of historical and scientific fact, and therefore the theological truths I arrive at are anchored in this. This is rooted in my understanding that the gospel accounts are for the most part reliable, at least in regards to his teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection (a complete analysis of this viewpoint would require its own post). And as a result of this conclusion, my theology rests along the same lines as the rest of orthodox Christianity. However, this does not mean EVERY story in the bible can be treated in the same way, or that every story should be treated as literally, historically accurate.

I think that in order to tell the difference, we use experiential, structural (to the scriptural passage), traditional (contextual), and reasonable (scientific, historical, philosophical) methods to arrive at our conclusions. Because we arrive at different conclusions, theological debate becomes a worthwhile exercise. However, I also believe that such differences of interpretation are not grounds for discrimination or hate, as Jesus' teaching makes clear.

The problem with the above debate is that neither side really devotes sufficient energy to using these methods to arrive at truth. In my final analysis I think Sam did better and "won" the debate. However, even his arguments were insufficient to turn me away from my conclusions. I do not think that this is due to an "unreasonable" attitude on my part.

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