Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Factual Claims Can't Kill Doctrines

According to some TV news hosts, whose fondness for the sensational is exceeded only by their ignorance of theology, Christian belief is in great peril as a result of the claim that the bones.of Jesus have been found in a burial box in Jerusalem. This is all presented in simplistic fashion as if the issues were clear cut. Actually, the problems related to science, history, and faith are extremely complex and as intellectually challenging as string theory in physics.

I am here to tell you, however, that the naive TV notions to which we have been subjected are mostly a pile of baloney, either before said substance enters the digestive system or after it exits same.

That some particular theological outlooks would be devastated by certain facts is, of course, obviously true. But that is far from saying that if the bones of Jesus are in a box found in Jerusalem, Christian faith and theology are kaput, period.

To oversimplify for the sake of a brief blog, the logic of the situation is roughly this: One can either deny the claim is true, in which case no problem exists. Or if one is convinced that the factual claim is true, then one can reinterpret the matter and preserve what is held to be essential to faith in a revised theological outlook.

I have heard some theologians on TV who agreed that if these claims are true, then the resurrection did not occur, and Christian faith is doomed. But note that they are sure these claims are false. Exactly!

Examples of this phenomenon abound, but I will mention only the controversy over Darwinian evolution. Some Christians, who agree that evolution and the Bible are incompatible, simply deny the claims of the scientific community on the point either on scientific or philosophical grounds or because the Bible teaches otherwise. Others accept the evolutionary hypothesis but incorporate Darwinian views into a reconstructed theology with no sense of theological loss and certainly no challenge to faith.

Claims about facts can't kill doctrines for the simple reason that you can either refuse to accept them as true, or you can accept them but render them harmless to faith by embracing them in a reformed theological vision.

Does anyone lose faith by being convinced of some factual claim? Of course, it happens, but this simply means they are unable or unwilling to embrace a revision of theology that makes them innocuous. It is not a necessary reaction, i. e., one that lacks alternatives but a contingent response based on circumstances peculiar to those persons. It simply means they have so identified faith with a particular theology they can not tolerate alternatives.

But are there some natural or historical facts or lack thereof that would devastate the truth of faith beyond any possibility of redemption by theological reconstruction? Well, now we are in the stratospheric intellectual level alongside, say, string theory in physics, which may be plausible, probable, or just plain silly nonsense depending on whom you ask. Resolve the string theory problem for me, and I will resolve the question as to whether Christian faith rests on some particular set of natural or historical events-facts or on no necessary fact or cluster of facts-events at all.

Meanwhile, let's be anecdotally empirical about it. Has your faith been threatened by the latest furor about the bones of Jesus allegedly found in that burial box in Jerusalem? Do you know anyone who does feel threatened?

I rest my case.

I like the (I assume apocryphal) story told years ago about Paul Tillich, a famous theologian who was accused of not being sufficiently concerned about the historical Jesus. He was told that it had been proven beyond doubt that the bones of Jesus had been found, no question about it. "Well," Tillich said, "it looks like he may have lived after all!"



1 comment:

Ralph Charlton said...

Claims about facts can't kill doctrines for the simple reason that you can either refuse to accept them as true, or you can accept them but render them harmless to faith by embracing them in a reformed theological vision.You can find more on www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOyE6aQ6qKE