Monthly Archives: September 2007

On Creation Science

While we like to suppose that the human intellect discovers the truth about things, and then we follow that truth, the fact is that it rarely works like that. What tends to happen is that our subconscious mind – our hopes, fears, desires and needs – suggest to us a particular way of looking at the world: and then our intellect jumps in to find reasons WHY.

I was just reading (ok, LISTENING to) Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink” – an excellent and engrossing book. He describes an experiment where a group of “speed daters” were surveyed about which of a list of qualities were the most important in a prospective partner. Was it physical attractiveness? Honesty? Wit? Common interests? After the test, they had their “speed dating” experience and were asked to rate each of the people they met on these qualities, as well as to pick the ones they were interested in getting to know better. As you might have suspected, the participants weren’t very good at predicting the people they would be interested in. They might have SAID they wanted a person who was honest and shared their interests, and then picked someone who didn’t rate high on those qualities at all, but was very physically attractive or witty. What’s more, when they were given the same survey a week later – their criteria had changed. If they had been attracted to a witty person, for example, they now rated “wit” as the most important criteria. Their intellectual criteria, in other words, were at the mercy of their subconscious desires, not the other way around.

This is just as easy to do in the creation/evolution argument. We all know that there are atheists who would be happy to listen to any evidence for evolution – even BAD evidence, because it helps them defend their worldview. And we all know there are believers who would be happy to listen to any evidence for creation – even BAD evidence. People will praise to the skies the work and credentials of complete hucksters, if the hucksters tell them what they want to hear.

Fortunately, just as there are checks and balances in government, to counteract the human tendency to abuse power – there are checks and balances in science, to counteract the human tendency to intellectually deceive ourselves.

ONE of those checks is peer review. The intellectual work of a scientist must be presented to a community of observers trained in the same field, who all have a vested interest in their own particular view and their own particular work. If there are glaring errors, these people will see it if anyone can. In particular, if the work of a scientist challenges the current understanding of things, his work is likely to be carefully scrutinized by other researchers with a vested interest in the current understanding of things. Peer review means that a scientist will be motivated to avoid the embarrassment of publishing nonsense. On the other hand, if the new idea elegantly explains problems that others in the field have been wrestling with, and helps them further their own work they will be motivated to give it a good hearing, and the originating scientist will be motivated to present the idea. Peer review is a protection to prevent our brilliantly adaptive intellects from inventing explanations that only serve our own needs and interests. They must serve the needs and interests of a broad community. This makes them more likely to be “true” in the sense of providing useful general principles.

But another and perhaps the primary “check” on a bad scientific idea is its predictive power. It’s very easy for our brilliantly adaptive intellects to invent ideas to explain any set of facts we come up against. It’s quite another thing to invent ideas that explain the facts BEFORE we encounter them. The “speed daters” in the experiment above were very good at inventing plausible reasons WHY they were attracted to certain people based on certain qualities – but not so good at predicting in advance what qualities would attract them. Only a person who correctly understands their own deepest motivations could accurately predict who they would be attracted to. Similarly, only a scientific theory that is in touch with some important aspect of the truth can make accurate predictions.

In my opinion, Creationism, particularly young-earth Creationism, is revealed by both these scientific “checks” to be largely a case of ad-hoc intellectual justification. Only a small handful of scientists see any merit in it. Is this simply a case of clinging to a justification for atheism? I don’t think so. Many scientists who accept evolution are believers. In fact, of the scientists who are believers, more of them believe in evolution than don’t. Remember also that Darwin’s theory had to originally win over the support of scientists who were almost entirely believers, and against massive public opposition. It could do this only because of its great explanatory power and predictive value.

As for predictive power, young-earth Creationism is, in my opinion, a complete disaster. Time and time again creationists have been forced into elaborate justifications to account for additional facts as they arise. None of these justifications may sound intellectually implausible on the surface. But the fact that the need for such justification arises again and again – not just in evolutionary biology, but in geology, physics, and chemistry, is telling. According to a young-earth creation scientist, nothing is as it seems. Transitional fossils aren’t really transitional. The geological column doesn’t represent a long sequence of deposits. The principles of radioactive decay can’t be trusted. The speed of light might have changed. Apparent genetic relationships have convoluted alternative explanations. Any exceptions invalidate the general rules. This is not evidence of the predictive power of Creation Science. It is, rather, evidence of the rather amazing power of the human mind to deceive itself.

And for what? To reconcile the facts to one particular interpretation of an ancient Hebrew text – a text which has generated quite a number of alternate interpretations? Of course, at this point, it’s much more than that. There is a whole group-ego structure built around this particular interpretation, and to a member of this group, any challenge to it is not simply an issue of scientific fact. It is a direct attack on the identity of who they are as a person and as a member of the group. They cannot concede any point against it without giving up some part of themselves.

This is not to say that it can’t work the other direction. In spite of the benefits of healthy skepticism, for example, I can’t help thinking someone like the Great Randi has more than an academic interest in maintaining his skeptical point of view, and that encountering a real psychic would challenge him on a level far more fundamental than simply intellectually.

The Paper Pope of Protestantism

As I sat down to write a continuation on how the Bible came to be distorted into something more than it was, I would first direct the reader to my previous posts on the topic of bibliolatry. Those posts can be found at:

http://perennis.pathstoknowledge.com/bibliolatry
http://perennis.pathstoknowledge.com/bibliolatry_continued
http://perennis.pathstoknowledge.com/bibliolatrys_beginnings

What probably bears some mention is the effect that the Protestant Reformation had upon this issue. I have to be cautious here, because of my Catholic background, of simply writing the whole Protestant Reformation off as a colossal mistake, so let’s be clear about how necessary it was that SOMETHING had to change.

The authority structure of Christianity had become extremely rigid by this time. The Dynamic Quality of the Spirit mentioned in the earlier articles had solidified into authoritarian structures of Static Quality, and these centered around the persons of the Pope and his Bishops. While not formally declared infallible until Vatican Council 1 centuries later, the Pope was regarded as having divine power and prerogative to dictate the truth in religious dogma and moral practice.

It was clear, particularly to the more educated class of men who had access to the texts of scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers, that the doctrine and practice of the Church was becoming more and more removed from the Dynamic Quality of the teachings of Jesus. Rather than embracing the uncertainty and ambiguity of Dynamic Quality, however, the Reformers opted for a somewhat unfortunate alternative – opposing one form of artificially absolute authority with another artificially absolute authority.

Episcopal Bishop Spong, whom I suspect I’d have a lot of disagreements with in many areas, nevertheless describes this situation very cogently:

“Martin Luther, on seeing corruption he could not ignore at the heart of the church, moved to challenge that which he felt distorted the gospel. He sought to confront the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with Holy Scripture and in this manner to recall the church to the purity of his perception of the New Testament vision. Luther wanted to purge his beloved church of superstition, clerical manipulation and false doctrine. His was a crusade which began in a sincere religious conviction…. When Martin Luther countered the authority of the infallible pope, he did so in the name of his new authority, the infallible Scriptures. This point of view was generally embraced by all of the Reformation churches. The Bible thus became the paper pope of Protestantism. Protestants historically have matched every extravagant papal claim with an equally extravagant biblical claim.” (“Hope and Fear in Ecumenical Union” – John Shelby Spong)

Historical circumstances, in other words, forced the Bible into an impossible position. It could not simply be regarded as sacred or inspirational writing, but had to be artificially invested with an infallibility equal to the Papacy it was challenging, in order to provide believers with the static certainty they craved in their religious beliefs. But that certainty comes at a rather high price. Quoting from Spong again:

“Hiding behind claims of revealed truth that were not allowed to be questioned and of infallible authority that could not be challenged, Christians have condemned Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Freud and many other great breakthrough thinkers in the various fields of an exploding human knowledge. Seeking to protect power and authority, Christians have had to be literally dragged by the knowledge revolution into the 20th century.”

I believe, on the contrary, that while the static documents of the Bible are invaluable – the heart of “faith” is not to clutch resolutely at a supposedly infallible standard. That is not faith, but fear – terror of the foreign territory into which God might lead us if we allow it. True faith, on the other hand, is to imitate the pilgrimage of Abraham and follow the lead of God, without knowing the destination in advance.

A Few Quotes

“There are two things which cannot be attacked in front: ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They can only be shaken by the simple development of the contrary qualities. They will not bear discussion.” – Lord Acton

“True wisdom is less presuming than folly. The wise man doubteth often, and changeth his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubteth not; he knoweth all things but his own ignorance.” (Attributed to Pharaoh Akhenaton )

Why Read the Bible?

I wanted to write a few words about the Bible, and explain why I think it is a book of great spiritual value but is not, especially in present form, a perfect and infallible guide to all truth. I’m in a bit of a quandary of how to begin, because what I generally like to do when trying to write persuasively is to first map out the points on which I agree with my intellectual opponents, and then move along to the points of disagreement. I find that people read what you have to say more openly when you convince them that you understand and respect their point of view first. (As an aside, this was something which my self-selected patron Thomas Aquinas taught me. He understood and presented his opponent’s arguments so well that modern readers are sometimes a bit confused about what position he is actually arguing for).

The problem is that the people I’d like to persuade fall into two drastically different groups – those who take a very literal view of biblical infallibility, and those who find no value in it at all. So…let’s go in chronological order and talk about what the Bible IS before talking about what it BECAME.

Our Bible critics correctly point out that the Bible contains contradictions. It contains points of view that are historically inaccurate and scientifically naïve. It endorses laws, customs and behaviors that we would find barbaric, and prohibits others for what seem to us to be no good reason, often crystallizing behaviors which seem to us to be merely outdated social customs into eternal moral precepts. It contains works from a wide variety of sources (some of them pagan) from different historical periods, and these sources have different and even contradictory points of view on spiritual and even factual issues. It contains several works which purport to be authored by individuals who almost certainly did NOT actually write them. Finally, both the old and new Testaments have been redacted, perhaps several times, by editors who re-wrote sacred history, included some sources and discarded others, and made editorial changes to the whole collection – in order to suit their own point of view.

So why read it?

Starting from the ground up, we need to read it because of its immense cultural significance. The Bible is not simply an attempt to record history – the Bible IS history. The book itself has had a more profound influence on Western civilization (for good and bad) than any other work. It has affected our law, our educational system, our philosophy, our systems of government, our customs, our social institutions, etc. It’s impossible to understand our world without understanding the Bible.

Secondly, we read it because of its literary value. Just as we read and appreciate the Iliad or the histories of Shakespeare for their own internal beauty (in spite of the fact that neither is good history or good science). The Bible contains the writings of gifted authors, containing poems and stories and writings full of beauty, savagery, pathos and glory. It has been a source of inspiration for countless works of literature, music, painting and sculpture. The poetry of Dante and Milton, the music of Handel and Bach, the painting of Rembrandt, the sculpture of Michelangelo… all steeped in Biblical themes and influences. Not to have read the Bible makes us artistically handicapped.
Then there is the element of scholarship. Because the books of the Bible have been regarded as sacred for much of their history, they have been preserved with as much care and accuracy as ancient methods allow. In fact, even many of the textual errors introduced into the Bible were for the sake of accuracy. Scribes would sometimes copy marginal notes into the text when recopying a manuscript, for fear that the notes might have been part of the original text, and being unwilling to take the chance of discarding holy words. Because of this, the Bible preserves layers of historically invaluable material which can help understand earlier periods of history.

It is true that it requires quite a bit of training and considerable research to understand what the Bible REALLY tells us about the times it was written in, and disputed opinions are many. During much of the time the Bible was authored, the concept and standards of writing “history” or “biography” as we know it today were unknown. The historical and biographical (and other) forms of the Bible have to be understood on their own terms, and not on ours.

Finally (and for many, most importantly), what about the SPIRITUAL value of the Bible?

In spite of the differing viewpoints and historical development mentioned earlier – in my position as someone interested in mystical spirituality and the Perennial Philosophy – the Bible is irreplaceably valuable. Let me explore for a minute a couple of concepts from Ken Wilber’s work on human spiritual history – the concept of stages vs. states.

Mankind passes through stages of spiritual, moral and social development. In the normal course of things, this can generally be regarded as “progress” (although there are pitfalls at each stage). These stages, which I’ve mentioned before, move from animism and shamanism up through goddess-centric horticultural societies, power-gods, mythic-membership societies, mental and intellectual abstractions of spirituality and eventually integral spirituality. (For some explanation on this development, see Ken’s essay ‘Which Level of God Do You Believe In at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/153/story_15318_1.html) While there will always be a few forward-looking individuals who are several stages ahead of their culture, they will usually end up at odds with the culture as a whole until a critical stage of development is reached.

But the second factor to consider is extraordinary STATES of consciousness. At every stage of development, both culturally and personally, there are occasions when we have access to extraordinary and unusual STATES of consciousness. While the stages of consciousness need to be EARNED by hard work and development, these extraordinary states are often a free gift. From out of nowhere, Saul of Tarsus may be knocked off his horse or Ezekiel may see visions of strange symbolic beasts, or the tribal Shaman may enter a trance. We can group these (roughly) into nature mysticism, deity mysticism, formless mysticism, and nondual mysticism. And anyone can experience any of these, at any stage of development. BUT, on returning to their ordinary state of consciousness, they will tend to interpret these experiences in the context and language and trappings of their stage of development. An experience that a Greek might interpret as a visit from Apollo, for example, a modern Jungian might interpret as an experience of an inner archetype.

The reason for this slightly long explanation, and the application is this: Mystical states and truths are described in the Bible. They were experienced by prophets and seers and poets of various ages and at many stages of human development. But they are reported in the language of the stage of development the authors find themselves in. The Psalms, for example, which at times sink into bitter recriminations or lash out at enemies, are also full of poetry which proceeds from deep mystical insights from several states of consciousness. Spiritual insights, most likely the product of these experiences of extraordinary states of consciousness, abound in scripture.

In addition to the insights of extraordinary prophets and seers, the Bible contains many stories rich in universal archetypes and mythic themes. The need for powerful and expressive mythology seems to be fundamental to human spiritual development. Witness the popularity of modern mythological creations such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the entire fantasy genre is sparked, or the mythology of George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’, which explicitly and deliberately utilized the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell in creating his storyline. Campbell described mythology as “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestation”, and believed that a lack of mythology had severe negative consequences for society and individuals. Mythology allows people to identify their own life and situations with universal patterns and themes, to feel connected with the cosmos. Whether we are David fighting Goliath or Joseph forgiving his brothers, we can find indispensable mythic images in the Bible that resonate with our life situations – particularly at certain stages of development.

It has been suggested that my method of finding valuable insights and patterns in the Bible is similar to finding shapes in a Rorschach ink-blot. I see the “higher message” because I’m LOOKING for a higher message. But this isn’t all I see. I’m quite aware of problems, provincialisms, contradictions and barbarities preserved in scripture. In addition to this, I find profound spiritual value. Perhaps the Rorschach criticism points both directions. It’s possible to read the Bible and see ONLY the difficulties – because difficulties are what we want to see.

But, granting that there is spiritual good in the Bible, wouldn’t it be better to simply extract that good and throw away the rest? Couldn’t a book with mystical insight and mythic purpose be written that was as good as or better than the Bible? While I’m all in favor of such books, I don’t believe they would replace the Bible for this reason: having been written from a variety of viewpoints at different stages of spiritual development, the Bible SPEAKS to all those viewpoints and stages, and can be used as a tool to lead us from one to the next. The individual at the “power-god” stage will find plenty of heart-warming stories in the Bible that assure him how much better and more powerful HIS God is than other gods. Meanwhile, such a person can be approached with the more subtle teachings of Jesus or Paul that call them to a higher stage of understanding. The “power-god” person is not going to even pick up a book by Krishnamurti or Eckhart Tolle. Which brings me to a final point about the Bible.

While I respect the right of others to disagree, I find something profoundly “providential” in the way the Bible has managed to come together out of apparently contradictory viewpoints to form a more balanced whole than any of it’s individual sources could have imagined or intended. In the Old Testament, some sources saw God as distant and transcendent. Others saw him as immanent and approachable. What results is a unique harmony of both views that see divinity both in the absolute and in the manifest. Lawgivers in the Old Testament are balanced by charismatic and iconoclastic prophets. In the New Testament, some sources emphasize Jesus’ humanity, others his connection with divinity. Some books argue for grace and others for morality. In the balance of these opposites, more profound truths are achieved than in either extreme.

It occurs to me that this is a long enough post without getting into the next part – how Bible reverence went awry. I’ll try to post on that presently.

Anti-Intellectualism

The whole foundation of Christianity is based on the idea that intellectualism is the work of the Devil. Remember the apple on the tree? Okay, it was the Tree of Knowledge. “You eat this apple, you’re going to be as smart as God. We can’t have that.” – Frank Zappa

Zappa, of course, wasn’t the first to find God’s behavior in Genesis 2 absurd. Shortly after Jesus, the Christian Gnostics read the Genesis account and saw something entirely different than what the orthodox saw. To them, it was obvious that the God of Genesis 2 was a bully – ignorant if not downright malevolent. To them, it was basically this “God” of Genesis 2 who was the REAL devil, and the serpent was sent from the true God to deliver Adam and Eve from Ignorance. The Gnostic “Testimony of Truth” put it in words Zappa would probably have approved of:

“But what sort is this God? First he maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said “Adam, where are you?” God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning? And afterwards, he said, “Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever.” Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger!”

But other mystical interpretations of Genesis pick up on additional subtleties. It is not simply wisdom that the fatal tree gives Adam and Eve – it is dualistic knowledge – categorical knowledge. Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Ultimately – myself vs. everything NOT myself. In other words, the developed Ego. The story in Genesis is basically the story of humanity rising above animal awareness and developing self-consciousness; a story repeated in the psychological development of every subsequent human being. Thorough the ego, humanity not only becomes aware of good and evil, but also life and death. We come to understand, anticipate… and dread our own mortality.

This is our “fall”. But it is a fall UPWARDS. The Ego is our only vehicle upwards toward transcendence, but it also can become our prison.

And so, in one important sense, the intellectual, categorical, dualistic mind IS an obstacle. Not because it allows us to question dogma or doubt doctrine, but because it isolates us from the rest of the universe in a prison of concepts, tortured by the suffering of remembered or anticipated pain and death and annihilation. The ego is our hell, and our only salvation is that the ego is temporary. To live forever in our present state would indeed be a grim fate.

Every mystical tradition recognizes that the intellectual mind is an obstacle to be overcome in the spiritual path. Zen masters give their disciples torturous, insoluble mental puzzles (koans) to trick the mind into exhausting itself. Yogis practice for years to quiet the noise of the mind. In Christianity, “contemplative prayer” involves a long discipline of focusing the mind on divine emptiness.

John Wren-Lewis, an atheist mystic, describes his experience of awakening from the conceptual world into emptiness:
“Now all the judgments of goodness or badness which the human mind necessarily has to make in its activities along the line of time were contextualized in the perspective of that other dimension I can only call eternity, which loves all the productions of time regardless.”

A Paraphrased Parable

A Paraphrased Parable

A successful businessman lived a few blocks from the Baptist church he attended. One Sunday, on leaving church, decided to cut through an alleyway as a shortcut on his way to a restaurant for breakfast. No sooner had he entered the alleyway when he was jumped by a gang of thugs who beat him badly and took his wallet, his watch, and even stripped him of his expensive suit. They left him half dead.

The pastor of the church walked by a few minutes later and noticed someone lying in the alley. “Drunken bums…” he muttered under his breath. “They never change”. And he hurried off. Not long after, the local Catholic Priest walked by, on his way to breakfast with a wealthy parishioner. He saw the man, but he was worried it might be a trap (and it would almost certainly make him late) and he hurried along.

But a cook from an all-night diner, on his way home from the night shift, walked down the alley and saw the man, and stopped. He was recently released from prison. In prison, he had become a Muslim and had amended his life. Remembering that Allah is merciful, he approached the man and saw that he was in serious trouble. Carrying him to a safe location, he phoned for an ambulance and accompanied the man to the hospital. Since the unconscious man had no identification, he even signed the paperwork promising to be financially responsible for the man’s hospital treatment. Shortly afterward, as he waited at the man’s side, the police arrived and he was taken to the police station to make a statement and answer many suspicious questions arising from his former criminal record.

Nevertheless, he returned to visit the man the next day and check on his progress and recovery.

Now, which of these three, the pastor, the priest or the Muslim, was truly following the teachings of Jesus?

—-
There’s a story (perhaps apocryphal but instructive nevertheless) that a professor at a theological seminary once devised an experiment to force his students to examine their hearts. He asked them to prepare and deliver a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan – then arranged that as each of them in turn was on his way to the auditorium to deliver the sermon, they would pass buy someone who appeared to be homeless and unconscious and had been strategically placed along the route. As you might have guessed, very few stopped to check on the man.

He who says he is in the light and hates his brother, is in the darkness even until now. He who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no occasion for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and doesnt know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

(1 John 2:9-11 WEB)

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