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Wednesday, June 06, 2007
(2:37 PM) | Stephen:
The Science Schism

Commenting on Gov. Huckabee's performance in last night's GOP debate, Ross Douthat says
atheists and agnostics have a vested interest in arguing that all religious beliefs are equally absurd - that there's no difference between believing n the God of Abraham and the flying spaghetti monster, say, or between a belief in the possibility of miracles and the belief that the Genesis account is literally true; and that the only reason the Book of Mormon looks more implausible than the New Testament is because the New Testament is older, and so forth. But serious Christians should reject that view (for reasons that I think should be self-evident, though I'm sure I'll have reason to elaborate on them at a later date), and within Christendom there's a pretty big distinction between the faith-and-reason crowd and the kind of fideism that Huckabee seemed to be gesturing at last night.
In answer to Ezra's question, Douthat seems to be suggesting that ecumenism may no longer be a good strategy for the "faith-and-reason" crowd to embrace when dealing with our brothers and sisters from more fideistic groups. That is to say, perhaps those Christians who are unafraid of scientific advances and understandings should seek to maximize rather than minimize their differences with those Christians who believe in a 6,000-year-old Earth and a literal Noah's Ark resting still upon the peak of Mt. Ararat in Turkey.

In fact, the implication seems to be that there are different qualities of belief represented by what I term, for convenience, fundamentalist and progressive* Christians. The more I consider this the more it seems to be the case. For centuries, Christianity was not only unconcerned with scientific advances damaging the case for faith in God, but such advances were seen as providing news avenues in which to do the task of theology. This task was beautifully summed up by St. Anselm as "faith seeking understanding," though it was entirely possible for understanding to seek out faith as well.

We see this clearly with the rediscovery of Aristotle by European theologians, especially of course Thomas Aquinas. Rather than cast a skeptical eye upon this pre-Christian, pagan philosopher and his system of though, Aquinas saw a rich source for greater understanding of the physical world, God himself and the mystery that was and still is the incarnation of God's Son as Jesus Christ. My criticism, if there is any, for Aquinas is that he was all too willing to embrace Aristotle's way of thinking over that of the Bible or Christian theology. Yet not only was Aquinas willing to accept this pagan's philosophy into his Christian theology, his Summa Theologiae, so heavily reliant upon Aristotle, was the basis for all Roman Catholic theology until Vatican II in the 1960's and is still their single most influential theological work.

The anti-intellectualism that we see in American fundamentalism has it's modern roots in controversies surrounding Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1920's. Enlightenment philosophy and with it Classical Liberal Christianity had been dealt a serious blow by WWI. At the same time there was quite a bit of scientific and intellectual development going on, and an economic expansion that wasn't quite touching everyone. American universities were gaining in prestige, and in the field of theology there was a growing phenomenon of specialization, with pastors no longer representing the culmination of theological understanding.

The growth in higher degrees and ensuing concentration of those with them at seminaries and universities served to insulate the world of the educated from the world of the uneducated, and each time they collided they had drifted farther apart. The Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Documentary Hypothesis were such foreign concepts to everyday Christians that they seemed to be attacks upon the faith itself rather than attempts to better understand and experience the Christian faith. American Christian Fundamentalism was a reaction to this, a way to determine the necessary components of true Christian belief and a way to delineate between those who are "really" Christian and those who aren't.

Since then the history of American Christianity in particular has been one of continued drift while attempts are sometimes made at ecumenical cooperation and acceptance. I've started to become convinced, and I suspect that Douthat may be on this path as well, that such attempts are not only pointless but counterproductive from a progressive's point of view.

In contrast to the denominational differences that have served to categorize Christians for the last 500 years (1000 if you go back to the East-West Schism), Christianity seems to be morphing into a religion in which the differences are marked by a particular approach to the hard sciences such as biology and physics. In the United States, at least, this phenomenon appears to be creating rifts far larger than any Luther or Calvin could have imagined, and far deeper, it seems, than what we find even in Judaism, Buddhism or other religions.

Indeed, the closest approximation is probably that found in Islam, where Sunnis and Shiites hardly consider each other to be fellow Muslims. I suspect the divide in Christianity will grow even greater than that.

*In this area progressive doesn't necessarily correlate with progressive/leftist political views.

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