Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Bomb Shelter and the Ostrich

About a month ago (it's been a busy month...) a frequent commenter asked my opinion of an article called "Bomb-Shelter Theology" by Fr. Brian Harrison that appeared in Living Tradition in 1994. I read it almost immediately, but I wanted to write a substantive response to the article and time has been lacking. Anyway, here it goes...

Let me go ahead and open by quoting the first few paragraphs of Fr. Harrison's article:

Those who anxiously whittle down and attenuate the traditional Catholic faith to the point where it includes no affirmations whatever about physical, material realities (such as conception, virginity, crucified corpses, the earth, sun, stars, etc.), on the grounds that such matters fall within the competence of "science," do a very good job of what they set out to do: their theological bomb-shelter is indeed impregnable against any possible bomb which might be launched by physicists, geologists, historians, etc. No such missile could ever damage that kind of "faith," any more than a cloud can be damaged by firing a shot-gun at it: there is nothing solid there with which the shot might possibly collide. Nevertheless, if the Catholic Church ever came to adopt, or even officially permit, this scientifically-ever-so-respectable theology, her rational credibility would suffer death by the "asphyxiation" of self-contradiction. Let us see why this is the case.

The Roman Catholic Church's basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation.... This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes....

For the credibility of an investigator and that of a witness have to be judged according to very different criteria. An investigator only need avoid self-contradiction in what he says at any given time. Provided he does that, he may - and indeed, should - contradict what he said only yesterday, if he happens to have found new evidence overnight that his previous view was mistaken. But a witness in a court of law is subject to more exacting requirements. Unlike the investigator, he is asking us to believe certain things on the strength of his word, not on the basis of publicly available data which the rest of us can inspect and evaluate for ourselves. He is asking us to trust him as a reliable source of information which is otherwise inaccessible to the rest of us. This means that in order for him to be credible in the claims he makes, he must avoid not only contradicting himself while under cross-examination today; he must also avoid contradicting today what he said yesterday -or the day before. Once he gives his clear, emphatic, sworn testimony to something, he must forever stick by it, and be able to defend it, on pain of destroying his whole credibility. Now, things like creeds and dogmas and solemn papal or conciliar definitions are the emphatic "sworn testimony" of the Catholic Church in bearing witness to the truth of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ and in the natural moral law. So are those doctrines which, even though not defined in such specific documents, have been taught by a solid consensus of Popes and Catholic Bishops round the world as being "definitively to be held."
Now, I suspect that all of us would agree that a theologian who suggested that the Church back off from the truth of the virgin birth or the resurrection because physical science could disprove such assertions would be a deeply misguided thinker. The Church clearly teaches and has always taught that these events happened and happened 'literally' not in some metaphorical or symbolic sense. Throughout Christian history people who have denied the virgin birth or the resurrection have been invariably labeled as teaching heresy.

As such, if someone went back in history and discovered that Christ's body was not in fact resurrected, but was actually eaten by wolves, it would not be because the Church was being 'too literal', it would be because the Church was flat wrong. Similarly, if someone could somehow go back in a time machine and prove that Christ was not conceived by the power of the holy spirit, but rather by the intervention of a Roman soldier (as I believe some blasphemous writer or other suggested) this would not be a matter of the Church speaking metaphorically when it spoke of the virgin birth, it would be a matter of Christianity being false, pure and simple.

Now, I confess, I have never encountered a writer who insisted that giving science due respect in its own domain meant that the Church could not assert itself clearly on physical matters such as the resurrection or the virgin birth. Indeed, if you think about it, science itself cannot speak to such questions -- unless one imagines the existence of tools such as time machines (which current science believes to be impossible). Science deals with questions of general rules of physical behavior. Thus, science can state that it is not usual for a woman to conceive a son without receiving sperm from a man. However, one must remember that science is not in the business of stating eternal truths. Science cannot say "no woman could ever conceive a child except through one of her eggs coming in contact with sperm from a male of the same species." Rather, science says "so far as we have ever observed, all children are conceived through the process of a woman's egg coming in contact with a sperm -- and we don't know of any other way that conception could take place." Miracles, and other events that are the first observed of their kind, cannot be predicted or disallowed by science, because by definition they fall outside the experience set by which science works. Indeed, when the Church calls in a doctor or scientist to help confirm a miracle, what the scientist does is not say "this was a miracle" but "I can find no physical explanation for thisoccurrencee." Thus, I think it's important to note that any theologians who do subscribe to the "bomb shelter theology" described by Fr. Harrison suffer not only from a deficiency in their theological understanding, but also a grave deficiency in their understanding of the methodology of science.

In the second section of the article, where Fr. Harrison gets down to business and asks how we are to deal with the initial chapters of Genesis.

If the Roman Catholic Church must forever persevere (under pain of a fatal self-contradiction) in affirming the dogmatic principle that there exists a category of "dual-citizenship" truths which are both revealed and physical/historical, one of the specific questions that arise when we apply this principle to the field of Scripture studies is whether the truth of the creation accounts (Genesis 1-3) falls into this category, or not. Few people professing to be Catholics will want to say that this opening section of the Bible is simply "false" or "untrue." The big question is, What sort of truth does the Holy Spirit want to communicate to us here?
Good question. However, I have some concerns about how Fr. Harrison drills down into this topic. Fr. Harrison references an article in Pastoral and Homilitic Review by Fr. Stanley Jaki which he says boils down to the following syllogism:

Major - All Scripture (including Genesis 1-3) is inspired by God, and is therefore without error in all that the writers intended to assert.

Minor - Science has demonstrated that Genesis 1-3, understood as a factual, historical account of how the world and man began, would be in error.

Concl. - Therefore the author(s) of Genesis 1-3 did not intend to assert in these chapters a factual, historical account of how the world and man began.
However, Fr. Harrison does not like this line of thinking:

Such is the facile solution offered by a "bomb-shelter" hermeneusis of Genesis. One just reduces the asserted content of the creation accounts to a few simple transcendental propositions (for instance, "God made everything good"; "God made man in his own image"; "God made everything there is with the greatest ease") so that their "true" meaning is safely secluded or cordoned off from any conceivable damage that could be occasioned by the bomb-blasts of empirical science....

Consider this little parable. In a certain far-off land the dominant religion includes the dogma that on the dark side of the moon there are large craters full of salt water. Comes the twentieth century and space-travel. Rocket-ships finally get to photograph all angles of the moon, including the dark side. The believers are cast into deep anguish and a crisis of faith by the terrible news that, while the new photographs indeed show plenty of craters, all of them are bone-dry! At first there is a reaction of rejection. The hierarchy assures the faithful that the photographs are all faked, as part of a Satanic plot. As time goes on, however, this becomes hard to sustain, since some astronauts of hitherto unquestioned orthodoxy themselves take part in a space-flight to the moon and see for themselves the faith-shattering emptiness of those great craters, reporting this sad news to their brethren on return. Many of the faithful leave the Church in disillusionment; but for others, faith does not remain shattered for very long. The more learned theologians soon come up with a "bomb-shelter" solution which satisfies well-educated, sophisticated believers. It can be set out in another syllogism.

Major - It is revealed truth that there are salt-water craters on the dark side of the moon.
Minor - Science has demonstrated that no water of any sort is observed in the craters on the dark side of the moon.
Concl. - Therefore there is invisible salt-water in the craters on the dark side of the moon.

This eminently reasonable solution comes to be accepted by the bulk of the faithful, because after all, it is logical (the conclusion follows ineluctably from the premises); it is orthodox (the traditional dogma is faithfully preserved); and by accepting the minor premise, this revised faith is perfectly in line with the latest developments in science. Armed (and comforted) by this modern development in doctrine, the guardians of the new orthodoxy can afford to shake their heads condescendingly at the tiny minority of fundamentalists, who, in their naive literalism, regard the new theology as nonsense and continue to insist on the hypothesis of hoax and fraud in all the photographs and testimonies regarding the craters. These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible. The only perplexing thing for the more enlightened believers is that the great bulk of their contemporaries seem to agree with the fundamentalists on this last point. The new theology, designed especially to make faith more credible for modern scientific man, seems to hold little attraction for him. The churches keep on emptying, as a greater consensus grows outside the Church that there is, quite simply, no water of any sort on the dark side of the moon.

Fr. Harrison believes that this "moonie" example is in fact a pretty good example of where Genesis biblical scholarship has taken itself in recent decades:

A century and a half after the existence of a "non-historical" literary genre for Genesis 1-3 was suddenly "deduced" from the studies (not in Hebrew literature, mind you, but in geology and biology) of scholars such as Lyell and Darwin, our exegetes are still looking for it.... And since our deduction about the existence of a "non-factual" literary genre in Genesis 1-3 was not based on methods even remotely connected with literary criticism, it is also unsurprising that we have not found what we are looking for, even after more than a century of searching.... Since all appropriate literary methods have so far failed to identify the creation accounts as belonging to any known "non-historical" genre (such as poetry, drama, apocalypse, fiction, midrash, allegory, parable, etc.), and since the field of literature (unlike that of nature) now contains very little unexplored territory, then it might be time to recognize honestly that this genre which just "has to" be there is one which is permanently undiscoverable by any method at all which human ingenuity can devise! In terms of the parable, our "water" has failed not only the visibility test, but also the tangibility test.
Now, I've quoted a lot of Fr. Harrison's article. I hope you will forgive me the length, but I thought his approach was sufficiently novel (I haven't read anyone taking this approach to the creationism debate before) that it was worth being very clear (for those not up to reading all fifteen pages of the original article) on what Fr. Harrison is saying.

I have three basic issues with Fr. Harrison's position:

First, I think he takes an overly simplistic approach to what elements of scriptureconstitutee the Church's "sworn testimony" about the world. Clearly, the resurrection is something that the Church does and always has asserted to be a historical event. There is no getting around it without falling into heresy. However, though certainly not an expert in patristics, I've read a decent number of sermons and commentaries by the Early Fathers and medieval Doctors of the Church, and nowhere did I get the impression that the Church'scredibilityy relied upon the scientific and historical accuracy of Genesis in the way that Fr. Harrison's "moonie" religion apparently relies on the existence of salt water on the moon.

Without making a particular study of the matter, two of the Church's greatest saints andtheologianss (Augustine and Aquinas) both spring to mind as suggesting that the plain "testimony" of the Genesis narrative might not be "accurate" in the most literal sense. Augustine rejected the literal accuracy of the six days of creation, pointing out that God's eternal and all powerful nature would suggest that the work of creation was performed in an instant. He held that the six days represented not the literal working and resting cycles of God's activity, but rather the temporal perception of the angels witnessing God'sinstantaneouss act of creation. Aquinas questioned whether "and thus death came into the world" could be literally accurate, because according to the Aristotelian philosophy creatures do not change in kind, and a change from being mortal to immortal would be a change in kind. (Aquinas argued that the "death" that came into the world was "death" in the spiritual sense often used in scripture, rather than "death" in the biological sense. Thus, Aquinas actually addresses the question that some ask about Genesis and biological evolution: how could there have been evolution before the Fall if death only came into the world after Adam's sin?)

One can hardly accuse Augustine or Aquinas of being a bomb shelter theologian, and between the two of them, they challenge both the six day structure and the literal coming of death into the world -- both major elements of the creation narrative if taken historically. In the "moonie" parable, Fr. Harrison presents it as a given that the existence of lunar salt water was a dogmatic article of faith for the "moonies". While the parable's narrative is fully under Fr. Harrison's control, I think it would be inaccurate to say that the Church has historically preached the historical accuracy of the seven days of creation as dogmatic. For all of Fr. Harrison's scorn, most (indeed all that I can remember) ancient and medieval texts that discuss the creation narrative do focus on the "few simple transcendental propositions" that he considers such a cop-out. When being chatechized, new Christians were told "God created the world out of nothing" and "Man was created in God's image" not "water was created 48 hours before fish".

This leads to my second major problem with Fr. Harrison's analysis: His "invisible" literary style doesn't seem to me to be terribly illusive but rather the product of an overly modern approach to literature. Genesis 1-3 are, I would say, myth. Fr. Harrison rejects this idea because he seems to have in his head a definition of myth something along the lines of "a false and silly belief that people used to have when they didn't know any better". Certainly, that is what all too many modern people mean by "myth". However, I would say that those people are quite wrong in their assessment.

Although he's talking about a slightly different genre, I would recommend Tolkein's "On Fairy Stories" as a good discussion of true mythology, but I will attempt to cover some of the same ground with fewer words.

When I say "myth" I do not mean a "just so" story like such as Kipling wrong. Nor do I mean a superstition or false belief. True mythology is un-authored, going back so far in a culture that it is well known and available in many versions, not the product of any one author. It deals with serious questions about the world and human nature in a form that is not necessarily literally, historically true, because it deals with questions too old and basic for anyone to know the truth of in a historical fashion. In his recent First Things essay, Cardinal Schonborn pointed out the philosophical dangers of accepting the idea that to know a thing's material/historical origin is to know its essence and meaning. (For example, the idea that if human beings evolved from lower life forms, that this tells us something deeper about human nature and humanity's place in the divine plan, or lack thereof.) Mythology contains an implicit understanding of this distinction, in that it accepts that it may not accurately describe a thing's historical or material origins while attempting to explain its essence.

So, for example, the Greek myth of Pandora's box was not (I would argue) thought to be literally or historically true by the ancient Greeks. Giving the question due thought, one would not imagine that war, pestilence, greed, hate, envy, etc. were physical creatures trapped in a box, that a specific woman named Pandora released upon the world. Rather, the myth of Pandora's Box attempted to address the origin of evil in the world (and man's culpability in that origin) at a level more essential than the historical.

The earliest chapters of Genesis, I would argue, are also mythology, but mythology which is wholly true and successful in its attempt to address the nature of things, while pagan mythologies expressed only partial truths, as recognized by man's inherent grasp of God and natural law. Perhaps the easiest way to see this is by contrasting the biblical story of the flood with the Sumerian flood myth found in the epic of Gilgamesh. Both stories contain certain basic elements (a flood sent to purge the world of humanity and a single family which survives by building an ark), however in reading the Sumerian version one sees immediately how the pagan version reflects a false understanding of the nature of man and the relationship between man and the divine. In seeing that which is false in the pagan myth, one realizes how the biblical myth correctly reflects God's revealed truth, in the way that the myth of mere human origin does not.

My third point of disagreement with Fr. Harrison is in some ways the most urgent, and the reason that I have written such a long commentary on his piece. In his "moonie" parable, Fr. Harrison suggests that there are two honest approaches to dealing with the discoveries of science in relation to Genesis: either insist that science is a fraud and that it is wrong to assert that the world is ancient or that humanity (in the biological sense) evolved from lower life forms, or reject the bible as false and Christianity as a fraud. The "bombshelterr" route that his intellectuals and theologians in the parable dream up (with the "invisible water") he sees as inherently dishonest and dangerous.

This is all very well for Fr. Harrison, who apparently is satisfied in his own mind that the findings of modern astronomy, geology and paleontology are indeed a fraud. However, he binds up a heavy and dangerous burden for others to carry. Either they must assert that much of modern science is a fraud (Fr. Harrison even holds out hope that the bible is right that the earth is stationary at the center of the universe while the sun and all the stars orbit it once each day, though he does not fully commit himself to that view) or one mustabandonn Christianity as false.

This is the biggest reason I find myself drawn back into the evolution debate again and again. It's not so much that I have a fanatical devotion to evolution or to the aspects of modern astronomy and geology that suggest and ancient universe (though I do consider these explanations provided by science to be the best theories to explain the evidence we have at this time) but rather that many who have an antipathy towards these areas of science (as Fr. Harrison clearly does) feel it necessary to build up the threat to Christianity and make the argument: Either evolution is false or Christianity is false. Now you believe that Christianity is true, so surely you must reject evolution, right?

Given that the Church has said repeatedly that there is no inherent contradiction between the findings of modern science and our beliefs, it seems wrong to me (indeed, wicked) to risk destroying the faith of others by insisting that one must reject either evolution or the Church. I do not say that given the choice Fr. Harrison proposes I would reject Christianity -- because I do not accept that this is a legitimate set of alternatives to propose. But I do consider the choice set up to be dangerous and unhelpful.


Dorian Speed said...

Thanks for this post - I have found it very illuminating.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying that Aquinas taught that Adam and Eve were not immortal before the Fall? If so, I think you are mistaken. Can you tell me where Aquinas says this?