Saturday, March 17, 2007

More on Facts, History, and Faith

In response to my piece on facts and faith (March 6, 2007) a friend and friendly critic sent me this response. I thought it raised pertinent issues and required a clarification and some emendations from me

Regarding your entry on the bones of Jesus: I've been a
conversation with my dean at the University of Chicago about the question of whether a factual or empirical claim can ever modify a theological claim. (We started on this when he wrote a paper on theology and intelligent design.) He takes what I see as a Tillichian position and argues "no." I take the other position and argue that I am representing the Chicago tradition of empirical and modernist theology. I see you much closer to my side than his, but I'm not sure you're with me and the early Chicago boys (they all were, as you know, guys). If I understand you correctly, you would say "yes, facts make a difference, but only in forcing one to reconstruct the theological claim so as not to be influenced by the factual claim." I want to argue that some empirical facts and the theories that account for those facts have the consequence of shaping doctrine. I think you would take that position, too, with regard to evolutionary theory, but I'm not completely sure. Shailer Mathews was slippery on such issues, but G. B. Smith wasn't, contending that what we come to know about both history and nature count in making theological claims.

So, in the case of the bones of Jesus, if there were ever real documentable evidence that these were his, there would be both positive and negative consequences: positive in the sense of confirming his earthly existence and, possibly, whether death came from crucifixion; negative, regarding any theological claim about the physical resurrection and what that would entail for related doctrines.

I'd appreciate your clarification of your own position, along with any criticism of mine.

Larry Greenfield


You are quite right in noticing my ambiguity, obscurity, and probable error. I was thinking specifically of doctrines like physical resurrection of Jesus, virgin birth, evolution, second coming of Jesus, etc. With regard to these I think my analysis is roughly right.

But as an empirical theologian in the Chicago School tradition, I would say that obviously the experienced facts of nature and history are the materials from which one develops a notion of the divine, values, etc. I would say as a modernist that the highest and best (Wieman) of the biblical tradition are contingently but not necessarily dependent on the facts recounted by the Bible, including the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We came to have some values that were generated in this history, and they are useful in the continuing analysis of experience. But it is conceivable that a God of unbounded love (Ogden) could have been discovered in other histories by non-biblical persons reflecting upon life, their total body of knowledge (accepted beliefs), and their own experience. In the final analysis the test of any religious claim in our experience. So I accept the highest and best of the Christian tradition (as I understand it) but not because it is in the Bible or comes down in tradition but because it validates itself in our own lives and experience (as shaped, of course, by our own upbringing in this culture and assimilated religious beliefs. It is the what (content) of religious belief that finally counts, not its wherefrom (source), content that is tested, revised, and abandoned by continuing reflection upon experience.

Am I a Christian? By my standards, yes. Many others have ruled me out long ago anyway, but I have convinced some fundamentalists by telling them that I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and was baptized at age 8 in Ethridge Mill pond, that I am a sinner saved by grace -- all true.

I guess my conclusion is that while facts or events can generate, alter, revise, undermine, and renew specific doctrines, religious truth is not dependent on any particular fact or set of facts or events in nature and history but is dependent on some ensemble facts and events that can sustain their interpretation. Whether this is a Christian view, I will not judge but am somewhat uninterested in the answer.

So within the limited framework I was originally assuming, my first analysis generally holds, but in a larger content, it is misleading. Remember I said that at this level the questions become as intellectually demanding as string theory.

Your response and corrections, suggestions, etc. would be appreciated.


1 comment:

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