Sunday, January 20, 2008

It's a long slippery slope

The slippery slope away from "true" Christianity and down toward outright unbelief is longer and much more complicated than many suppose. For inerrantist evangelicals, I have been told over and again that signs of trouble start as soon as one entertains the slightest doubt that scripture is not inerrant. It is interesting to note, though, that from the vantage of a person who is a rather long ways down the legendary slippery slope, entertaining that scripture might not be inerrant and still believing that the scripture is inerrant amount to the same thing--there is only a negligible difference, if any, between the two positions as far as they can see. The fact is that the slippery slope is much more involved than inerrantist evangelicals are willing to imagine. After denying inerrancy, there is only a very short time before one is no longer Christian, or, at the very least, one won't be as strong of a Christian--or so some inerrantist churches and seminaries tend to insinuate to their congregations and student bodies.

I gave a paper yesterday at an international conference on “The Re-Enchantment of Nature across Disciplines: Critical Intersections of Science, Ethics, and Metaphysics,” in Morelia, Mexico. My paper was on why religious people do not trust science. During the discussion time, one process theologian offered some thoughts on how academicians might make science more palatable to religious believers by trying to change the way people understand the divine. Another scholar's opinion was that my paper only raised a red herring and that people who know better will not be goaded into a supernatural vs. natural antithesis when thinking about the science and religion interface. He explained that my paper was a prime example of how American Christians preoccupy themselves with "problems" that others throughout the rest of the world have no interest in. Americans' view of the science and religion dialogue on the whole is quite skewed; many people get by just fine with their religious and scientific knowledge co-existing peacefully side by side. What happened next is what reminded me of just how long the slippery slope really is.

The discussion then moved on to how religion should be reconceptualized and understood as any sense of mystery that effects a distortion of time consciousness, altered states of reality, or some other awareness of transcendence. Then the discussion revisted a paper given earlier on how the origins of religion can be traced back to the neural reward system associated with the runner's high: running as religious experience. Attention was also drawn to a series of articles just published in the December issue of the JAAR. The articles consider whitewater kayaking, fly fishing, and surfing as religious experiences. I protested that what's missing in each of these examples is a notion of agency, a notion of mystery that has to do with the existence of a divine person(s)--an aspect of religion that is really non-negotiable for the majority of religious persons in the world. Why was it that such a salient feature of religion was being systematically avoided at a session at a conference that was supposed to be devoted to religion, nature, and culture?

Afterwards, a religious studies professor came over to me to explain that the reason why academia has no interest in the conflict model between science and religion--even if it is the model that is taken for granted at a grassroots level--is that academicians define their disciplines well and know precisely what each discipline is supposed to do. Theology takes as its data the religious experiences of a religious population and analyzes that data for trends and patterns in social relations and religious beliefs. I countered that I had always been taught that theology was a religious believer trying his or her best to think God's thoughts after him. The woman laughed.

The woman teaches at a religious school. She said that she thought a little more humility was in order. Academicians know the bounds of each of the disciplines and therefore do not see any need for a conflict model between science and religion. The idea of a divine agent acting in the world is not a proper part of theology, the academy already knows this--it's just that the people haven't come to that conclusion yet.

Well, I think this is a point on the journey down the slippery slope that certainly spells trouble. When the idea that one is trying to know what God wants seems laughable, when the idea that a divine agent has nothing to do with theology seems obvious (I'm talking about trying to discover these things personally, not about making sure that the whole world comports with one's ideas regarding what God wants and what kind of divine agent he is), one has reached a spot on the slippery slope that is very hard to reconcile with Christianity. But that's a long way off from questioning inerrancy and looking at the Bible for what it really is, whatever that may turn out to be.