Friday, August 21, 2009

"It is more nearly correct": fideism, evolution, Hans Frei and resurrection

I was recently thinking about the conundrum a believer may encounter if it turns out that events where God has truly acted look exactly like events where he has not acted. Now I'm not really sure what it would mean for God to "act." However, in this case, I am specifically trying to imagine a scenario where if there were some event that God wanted to use to "judge" his followers or "say" something to them, anything at all, and if Christians believe that that event will probably look just like any other event where God does not "mean" to "say" anything at all, then that seems to me to pose a big problem for talking about events in such a way that God would want to "say" anything through them. If there really is no difference, then there simply is no way to tell whether God is "saying" anything by way of some event--at least not by looking at the event. Where must we look then to make this kind of decision if we cannot look to the event? We have to look inside our heads and try to decide best we can how we want (ought?) to interpret what has happened and this seems to me to get kind of sticky and that very quickly.

Let me try to explain. This particular line of thinking--that if God works through some event, it will not look much different from when he does not work through an event--brings to mind how cognitive and neuro- scientists are saying that the human brain has evolved in such a way that it constantly joins together disparate events and endlessly tries to construe them into some coherent narrative. When it happens to do so in a salient way, the narrative keeps and informs our conscious reflection. In recently reading D. J. Linden's The Accidental Mind, for example, I came across the following: "Religious ideas are similarly formed by transforming everyday perceptions, by building coherent narratives that bridge otherwise disparate concepts and entities." (230) This is the brain doing this, according to Linden, it is "the left cortex's always-on narrative-constructing function" that doing this building of a narrative to join together disparate concepts, objects, and events. Interestingly enough, Linden's observations dovetail Justin Barrett's theory that human brains have evolved in such a way that we find agency over and over again where there simply is none. (See his Why Do People Believe in God? I did a synopsis piece on these views that ended up as an article in Theology Today, see my publications list for more info.) Our brains are always looking for "agency" in events and trying to construct narratives within which the identification of agency and a "theory of mind" would help make sense of things.

For example, I am convinced that the Bible is inspired to the effect that the Holy Spirit somehow reaches out to believers when they read it in a way that he does not reach out when they read other literature. But others might read the Bible and not think that this happens or they might read the Bible in such a way that the Holy Spirit does not relate himself to readers in any efficacious way. This might be an interesting thing to think about, but the inspiration of the Bible is a peripheral issue. So I set the issue of Bible reading aside and moved on to thinking about God acting in real space-time, that is, in actual history, specifically in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Presumably Jesus' death looked the same to everyone who watched it and some think God was at work there in a significant way and others do not. And even Jesus' resurrection, insofar as people who saw it believe that it happened, might have looked the same to everyone who saw it, but let's say for argument's sake that everyone who did see Jesus resurrected believed God to be at work in a special way, their narrative descriptions of what exactly God was doing might have still taken them in different directions.

But the question I still pose to myself every now and again is: what role would the evolution of the brain, a brain that actively seeks out agency and often gets it wrong, a brain that is always trying to make up some narrative to make sense of data, contribute to a resurrection account, especially to ones that ended up being written decades after the fact? And where does that leave us thousands of years after the fact (with our brains still (over-)actively looking for agency and desperately seeking to make up narratives to help us make sense of things)?

I'm not sure where that leaves us, but I tried to consider whether there are ways to faithfully conceive of the resurrection that might still leave room for all this brain-having-evolved-to-invent-religious-stories stuff and permit one to continue operating within something like a Christian world-view. I conducted a thought-experiment, as it were, and pretended that maybe my brain really did decide to take up the Christian story as my own precisely because of its (my brain's) evolutionary history and my (and my brain's?) cultural conditioning. In other words, I conceded, hypothetically at least, that this is what my brain might actually be doing, indeed what it has evolved to do, at least given the cultural moment within which it finds itself. My brain drew the conclusion that Christ rose from the dead and that's the main reason why I believe. But if this is how things panned out for me, that should still be fine, shouldn't it? (This is all hypothetical now.) Does it really matter if I believe for these seemingly natural reasons? Well, for the moment I am encouraged that an affirmative answer to this question is kind of like the conclusion (at least I think it's kind of like the conclusion) that is latent in the work of Hans Frei.

"What kinds of affirmation would be involved in belief in Jesus' resurrection? I think it would mean much more nearly a belief in the inspiredness of the accounts than that they reflected what 'actually took place'...The New Testament authors, especially Luke and Paul, were right in insisting that it is more nearly correct to think of Jesus as factually raised, bodily if you will, than not to think of him in this manner (even though the qualification 'more nearly...than not' is important in order to guard against speculative explanation of resurrection). The judgment that they were right is in part at any rate a matter of a particular understading of what identity means, what and where the identity of Jesus is to be found most directly in the Gospel accounts (i.e., in the crucifixion-resurrection sequence) and where the transition from the literary description to factual, historical, and theological judgment is to be made: precisely in that sequence. I think further that both because what is said to have happened here is, if true, beyond verification...and because the account we have and could most likely expect to have in testimony to it are more nearly like novels than like history writing, there is no historical evidence that counts in favor of the claim that Jesus was resurrected...On the other hand I believe that, because it is more nearly fact-like than not, reliable historical evidence against the resurrection would tend to falsify it decisively, and that the forthcoming of such evidence is conceivable." (The Identity of Jesus Christ, 44-45, emphasis mine, although "against" was italicized in the original)

So the resurrection might be falsified some day. That seems like a good thing, that it is always open to investigation. I mean Christianity might ultimately be a cultural meme that has proven salient enough that brains in 21st century America (and elsewhere) might easily adopt it. Would this disprove the resurrection? After all, Christianity is really supposed to be a fundamentally historical religion and as such should be modified according to any evidences that happen to impinge upon it. Yet Christianity does not appear to depend on evidence, does it? A non-evidentialist "foundation" for faith seems more in line with how Christians come to faith and how they end up doing theology. Faith seems to depend more on theological imagination and on inspired literary descriptions of the crucifixion-resurrection sequence than on historical evidence. Now this is a rather different way of looking at things than the way I have been taught to understand evangelical faith within evangelical churches. But I think Frei is more right than he is wrong when he says that some horribly wrong turn was taken "somewhere around the 18th century" (in my recent book I say it might have been during the 17th century).

Still, Frei says that "there is a kind of logic in the Christian's faith that forces him to say that disbelief in the resurrection of Jesus is rationally impossible." The faith is real and responds to data and evidence, but it does not depend on the evidence. It can be destroyed by evidence but not built up by evidence. This is an interesting way of putting it. I don't know whether it can withstand scrutiny, but more interestingly (at least to me in light of my recent series of posts), is this another kind of fideism that Sparks critiques in his book? I'm not sure, but even if it is, maybe it's a better kind of fideism. I mean at least it's one that tries to be as honest as it can in the face of evidence. And in the face of present evidences, perhaps we can say: it is still "more nearly correct" to believe that Jesus rose from the dead than it is to disbelieve it.