Is faith really at odds with reality? It would seem that this is the exact impression that 300 special visitors to the Creation Museum got as they wondered its halls which consistently rejected or misrepresented scientific evidence and replaced it with a document several millennia old. This particular document is in fact the Bible, and when it comes to its own academic study, well, the reaction tends to be the same when evidence comes up.
A Faith Continuum*
The task is to describe the relationship to what some have labeled “reality” versus and faith, which many would assume as being the opposite. As many aspects of the human experience (i.e. emotion, intelligence) the position of faith falls on a continuum. Rather than different intensities (because both ends of this scale can be quite intense), it may be more accurate to talk about the interplay of faith and reason where the difference between the ends of the spectrum is more about the way a person embraces reason.
Faith is a phenomenon that while it may require a dive, it can include knowledge based on evidence that the water actually exists. Blind faith, at one end of the continuum, climbs the ladder to the high dive, but does so in the complete blackness of night and unabashedly assumes that someone has filled the pool. Even in the case of this extreme, may I point out that knowledge confirms that there really is a diving board and a pool, even though lacking confirmation that there is water below.
What I will call “informed faith” takes into account all the available evidence with the acknowledgment that the search for scientific truth is never complete, but that an infinite God can contain answers that may not seem tangible or obvious. Informed faith may go so far as to study the properties of metal from which the diving board is made, observe others diving, and even analyze the water before mounting the ladder and participating in the dive.
The Cannon, Blind Faith and Biblical Scholarship
In many of our churches there are award shows where people hold up blind faith as trophies: the hopeful answer to all their problems. In its most extreme cases, faith takes possession of sentences and phrases nabbed from their homes in Scripture and made to stand guard against disease, poverty, and age. If the formulas that they create do not work, then the reaction is not to blame God, but to reexamine the method and attempt again to curry the favor of the celestial vending machine.
The problem is that these manipulative games are not to be questioned for fear of offending their practitioners or consumers. Even though these methods are based on erroneous interpretations of incomplete pieces of the biblical text, they are grounded in “faith” and the weight of that faith can cause tall buildings to crumble.
Reason appears on the scene in the hands of the biblical scholar. These scholars use techniques including historical, redactive, and canonical critical methods to analyze the text within its own home both in the context of the words themselves, but also in light of other contemporary documents and culture of the time of its authorship. Scholarship can set aside preconceived belief and investment of faith in search of the intended meaning of the text whether it be the intention of the author or of God who inspired it.
As the scholar operates and scrutinizes the inevitable happens: some small tidbit is discovered that interrupts that gentle and even flow that people identify as faith. The problem is that this small piece will cause a need for the change of some piece of relatively insignificant bit of theology. Yet as insignificant at it may be the weight of faith gives gravity to any change, and the experience is a tidal wave of cognitive dissonance. The solution then is to suppress the evidence and reject the conclusion.
The Irony of Reason in Faith
It may be ironic but the Age of Reason not only bequeathed to us the gift if empiricism, but also its evil twin of firm resistance to the logical and intellectual challenge of our most cherished beliefs. When people of faith use reason as a tool to construct a foundation of concrete, a few cracks caused by further reason can seemingly lead to its ruin. Here is the break of the logic of faith: belief in an infinite deity precludes anyone from creating such a static foundation because only a full and complete concept of God can allow someone to complete a structure of stone. It would stand to reason that to contain an infinite deity in a finite brain is completely preposterous.
Step into the shoes of a mainstream Christian for a moment. If you believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and sacred in its own right as a testimony to the God that you serve, what good would it do to reject the conclusion of those who have devoted their lives to the study of this book? Would their conclusions, though uncomfortable at first, help you to more fully understand the content of the book that is so important and would not that understanding lead to a deeper relationship with the God you spend your Sunday mornings worshipping? What does it serve for a Christian to reject the reality of their own holy writings?
Reality of Faith
If Galileo and the Flat Earth Society have taught us anything, it is that people do not easily give up their belief. Changing or giving up belief does not mean recanting faith, but a reexamination of our own faith constructions in light of truth. Jesus encouraged his followers to build their “house upon the rock” instead of out on the beach, but that statement is about safe placement of the structure (for Jesus that would be the Hebrew Bible), not the raw material with which to build it.
Homes, even when built in a safe place, still need regular maintenance and repair. When biblical scholarship or scientific endeavors uncover truth, adding to our grasp of reality, it as if we begin to see evidence that the roof is leaking and in need of repair. It is not a matter of “accomodation” but rather an acknowledgement that our God is truely incomprehensible and so in its very nature faith must be flexible enough to embrace truth.
The other lesson of Galileo is that change is possible. Granted it took many years and much deplorable action by the church, but it did become accepted (except for some modern outliers) as fact that the earth is not the center of the universe. Christians and church leaders were eventually able to recast their opinions and readings of particular passages in the light of the evidence for a different arrangement of the solar system. The hope here is that by teaching Christians to have open dialogue, by helping them change the structure of their “house” in order to allow for needed repairs, and by means of patience and diligence change is possible.
[*Another excellent perspective on faith is more of a maturity model developed by James Fowler that I feel is equally valid within the context of this discussion.]