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Born to Sin
What can science teach us about bad behavior?
released their sixth album entitled,
, with eye-catching cover art featuring an angelic baby . . . casually smoking a cigarette. Such a cover was controversial 26 years ago, inciting the ire of many religious Americans. Despite the controversy, the art itself raises a profound, theological question about the nature of human beings:
Does even a seemingly innocent child possess an innate predisposition for bad behavior (aka "sin”)?
It's a question that theologians and anthropologists struggled with long before the 1980's, and one that was recently revisited in the June 2010 issue of
. In it, science journalist Andy Ridgway surveyed the latest research to illustrate that humans are biologically hardwired to sin. His investigation is focused around the infamous “seven deadly sins”—pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust—which are often elevated in culture as the evilest sins of all. (It should be noted that this compilation of bad behavior can’t be found in the Bible, but was first compiled by the Greek monk Evagrius of Pontus in 375 AD.)
Ridgway highlights recent research illustrating the human predisposition toward such behavior. To wit, scientists at the University of South Wales and Kings College in London found that anger is a direct result of the amygdale’s biochemical response to frustration. Research at Northwestern University in Illinois found that the human limbic system prompts lust when we encounter erotic images or become aroused. And it has been demonstrated at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan that envy is the product of the anterior cingulated cortices in the brain.
“It appears we’re nature’s puppets – dancing to a pre-ordained tune that’s been reinforced through the generations,” Ridgway writes.
What Ridgway claims scientifically, Christians have been stating theologically for centuries: humans are born to sin. According to the Christian story, the utopia of a good creation was wrecked when the first humans decided to disobey the Creator and pursue their own plans. Sin infected everything, and we’ve been fighting the symptoms of our illness ever since.
But Ridgway doesn’t stop there. His discovery of the human condition leads him to a value judgment about the healthiness of that condition. “Most human cultures have a moral code to govern behavior, with the worst actions considered ‘sinful.’ But how much choice do we really have in resisting sin? Should we be feeling guilty or are we merely acting as Mother Nature wishes us to?,” he asks.
And that’s where orthodox Christian theology pushes back. The belief that sinfulness is a spiritual inadequacy that must be overcome rather than an inevitability that should be ignored is a fundamental part of the Christian gospel. According to this story, sin is the unquantifiable defection, which estranges us from God, neighbor, and self. The apostle Paul didn’t mince words when he asserted one of the saddest, but most profound truths in scripture: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23, TNIV).
“But what if Paul and his contemporaries got it wrong?,” Ridgway responds. “What if the wages of sin is life? What if humans need to be led into temptation to survive?” He posits that it may be good to be bad.
It is an interesting theory, but one that is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. Science can’t quantify the damage that untamed lust will inflict on a marriage, and it can’t calculate the number of relational problems caused by pride. Even if one might illustrate the biochemical benefits of a greed or anger, researchers would be unable to address their spiritual and relational implications. Surely those must be also considered when making a value judgment.
Indeed, this is where theology is able to compliment scientific inquiry. Science illustrates that we were born to sin, but faith asserts that the evilness of this sin cries out for a Savior. That’s why the Bible does not call us to forsake sin, but to die to it. Which leads us to one more thing beyond the scope of science or even reason: through death, the Christian finds life.
How does your personal theology inform you on the subject of sin? Do you agree or disagree with this article's conclusions?
I disagree. The typical "total depravity" view of is inconsistent with God's character. Would Jesus ask someone to do what they are inherently unable to do and then punish them for not doing what he's asking? I don't think so.
How do we define "sin?" To actively and purposely "sin" requires the ability to make a free choice. If we are driven by forces over which we have no control, we can say that we are flawed or defective creatures but it would not be "sin' if there is no free choice. For that matter, we could conclude that all "good acts" and all moral and ethical choices are also driven by forces outside our control. This would mean there is not such thing as "being good." Perhaps these semi-Calvinistic views we find emerging today result for our inability to explain the "sin" or "evil" we experience in this world. Worse yet, maybe this is another way for individuals to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. It is a deadly view of humankind that renders deadly consequences when such views become the norm within the culture.
Thanks for your comment. I'd like to push back a little bit here and get your responses.
Leo: Does the belief that humans are all "infected" (my word) with sin necessarily promote the idea of "total depravity" (your word)? In other words, can't we begin by agreeing on the ideas found in passages like Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:23, and Romans 3:9-12 without debating reformed theology? To frame it in the words of the apostle John, can't we avoid the debate about depravity for a moment and simply agree that "if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves" (1 John 1:8)?
I appreciate your comments and would love to hear your thoughts on this?
As to the 7 sins God hates aren't they listed in Proverbs 6:16:19?
If you are/have been a parent, it does not take long to see the sin nature of your precious little child display itself especially during the toddler time.
I can not even begin to comprehend the complexity of our minds and brains but I do know that we are born to sin since the Fall. It is a part of who we are and we all are in need of a Redeemer. Once found, it is the Spirit of God working in and through us that brings us to a place of sanctification that allows us to then display the work that has happened in our hearts, mind, lives to the world which surrounds us.
Too few words to explain such a profound truth.....
Loran E. Scott
In the time I have spent in Scripture, I would ask a different aspect of sin, for it seems that we find a leader of that we determine to be evil -- the Devil, or Satan. Jesus speaks of the evil one as one with whom he competes. In our definition of sin, it is that we are in the position of having to make a "choice"-- which leader are we going to follow?
When I consider 'man' and consider him within the framework of the known universe, he is surely a small venture, yet one with so much potential. What causes the differences between good and evil --- it is not often choices made at some point in our lives?
I would think that any such discussion as this --- and I think that they are most important --- we would have to determine the sources of our choices? Leo mentions the seven deadly sins while Scripture mentions the nine fruits of the Spirit -- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentileness and self-control. (Yes, I know, someone has listed the seven cardinal virtues -- but I suggest that the list of nine above might be the better basis for this discussion. Thanks for bringing this up, Leo ---
In regards to Mr. Ridgway, I fear his logic for the believer.
Shall the saints of God continue to live as though they have not been redeemed? Shall we sin again and again so that we may rejoice all the more in the grace of God (Hebrews 10:26)? Certainly not, declares the apostle (Romans 6:1-14)! Instead, like Loran said, we are to walk in a manner worthy of our calling (Ephesians 2:10, 4:1, Colossians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:12). For those being saved this is the greatest of all truths and our heart yearns for His goodness, but to those continuing in sin this truth is their undoing (2 Corinthians 2:15-16, 1 Peter:2:7-8).
Yes, Proverbs lists seven sins that God hates but they are not the traditional "seven deadly sins." Solomon doesn't include many, including gluttony and lust, and he adds a few, including "one who stirs up dissention." This is the closest thing we have in the Bible but not the list that Ridgway addresses.
Also, thank you for sharing your wisdom on parenthood and the presence of sin. I've heard several people say the same thing and though I am not a parent, I think your words of experience add much to this conversation.
I would disagree with the comment made on the subject of a scientific reasoning for sin. Paul tells us in Eph 6:12 that "the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers, and principalities and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." I do believe fully that God created everything and that the scientists haven't even began to touch on the entire magnificence of His creation. However, I don't think it's scripturally accurate to assume that sin is a result of science. If that were the case, then once we have accepted Christ and begin living according to His Grace and Word, there would have to be a chemical change in our physical bodies, making our conversion physical and not spiritual. In other words, it's as if we all agree that we have a brain but not a mind. There are "Spiritual Forces" that has nothing to do with our physical being. We are never freed from being sinners until that day we reside with the Father. We now have the "Spiritual" power, through the blood of Christ, to resist sin and depend on the Holy Spirit to be our strength.
How does your personal theology inform you on the subject of sin? Do you agree or disagree with this article's conclusions?
Indeed, science shows us what we already know from scripture... we are born into sin. It is transmitted from birth... intergenerational transferal of dysfunction... aka "Original Sin."
Sin is normal and natural in our fallen state and leads to death.
I disagree with Mr. Ridgway's conclusion that, "The wages of sin is life", merely because it's natural for us to sin. We sin because it's the only thing we know how to do apart form Christ. Rebellion against God is not a matter of science, it is merely a lack of Christ.
This article frustrates me, and according to the article, that explains why it makes me angry. I'm frustrated and angry that science would be used as an argument against faith, when there's no reason the two can't be describing the same thing.
All sin is a result of failing to have no other gods before Him. I think I know the truth and that Mr. Ridgway just doesn't get it. I would even say I worship my sense of superiority over Mr. Ridgway. I worship the god of my own intellect and therefore am frustrated that Mr. Ridgway doesn't see that I'm more 'intellectually aware' than him. Now my amygdala is making me angry that Mr. Ridgway hasn't yet apologized.
It's nature, it's sin.
sin does bring me the life I have in Christ...sin brings us to the cross...being good or bad is not His plan...they are both fleshly...one is grade A the other grade F...neither smells good...sin is what He came to deal with...its within us but we long for the garden and that is a sinless place...one day we will experience it...but for now hang on the the cross.
The doctrine of original sin was formally crafted by St. Augustine (of Hippo) in the early 5th century. This belief was NOT a part of orthodox Christian thought before Augustine's theological treatise.
The New Testament scholar, Dr. Elaine Pagels, suggests in her book on Augustine, "Adam, Eve, and the Serpent" that Augustine's lifelong struggle with sexual compulsion drove him to explain it in theological terms, to wit, that he was born with this compulsion and that nothing, not even his personal Christian conversion, would rid him of his behavior.
If Augustine were to visit a therapist today, he would likely be diagnosed with a compulsive sexual disorder, one that has roots in his genetic makeup and that is also shaped by early childhood experiences. A 12 step program and anti-depressants would form the basis of a recovery program that could very well lead him to a life of sexual sobriety . . . what Augustine sought in his conversion but never found in his walk with Christ.
The basic moral problem with Augustine's doctrine of original sin is that it threatens the moral nature of our universe. How can God hold us morally responsible for a congenital birth defect, also known as "sin"? If I am born a sinner, I am not morally culpable for that condition. Stating that God will send me to hell because I am a sinner is like stating that God damns to hell all those born with brown eyes.
Ridgway's research lays bare what most of us know empirically, that we are born with some destructive tendencies. But, we are also born capable of making choices, of loving sacrificially, and of thinking and acting in a moral context.
Evangelicals give our "original sin" a great deal of air time. What about the love and grace which also abounds in human nature, quite apart from a spiritual experience?
I think science is way cool, yet it seems to me that Ridgway's scientists bump up against the epistemological limits of science. Consider the question, "Is there a metaphysical realm?" Roughly, the philosophy of modern science is, "If the metaphysical exists, it can't be proven, so we will act as though it does not exist." This is reasonable, to a degree, yet it becomes a problem when it results in the confusion of correlation and causality.
Unfortunately, Ridgway's article is locked down online, but Lifebite's reaction to an earlier version of it (link below) gives a bit more on the stimulus-response structure of the underlying experiments. The scientific explanation runs like, "When people see or do this-or-that, their brains do such-and-such, which demonstrates that human activities and emotions are wired into our brains. Based on this, evolution can reasonably explain why our brains are wired to do sinful things." By assuming away the metaphysical and proceeding with their philosophy that purely physical explanations can account for all the data, Ridgway's scientists assume physical causality when more likely they have found mere correlation. They seem to have short-circuited rigorous science, drawing conclusions prematurely. They would have been more faithful to scientific truth to have simply stopped with a statement of correlation.
Having established the correlation scientifically, they might then do two things. First, pose further physical questions aiming to find an experiment, if there is one, that might truly establish causality. Second, reflect on the curious observation that (as Ridgway recognizes, according to the Lifebite piece), despite the correlation between eating and certain brain functions, eating does not always turn into gluttony. If our brains are hard-wired for gluttony, why is gluttony not a universal trait? Could there be something metaphysical, like the human spirit, that intervenes between supposed cause and effect? The more difficulty our science has proving physical causality, the more it perhaps ought to bravely stop at the edges of the mystery of this life rather than assuming it away.
@ Randy - the "epistemological limits of science" are the reciprocal of the epistemological limits of metaphysics. Science (and scientists) operate within a knowledge domain that is falsifiable; meta-physicists carry no such obligation and feel free to impute causality between the realm of spirit and matter when none can be proven (or falsified).
You write "The more difficulty our science has proving physical causality, the more it perhaps ought to bravely stop at the edges of the mystery of this life rather than assuming it away."
The "mystery" is the boundary of what can be scientifically known and that threshold is constantly moving. Beyond that boundary, meta-physicists are free to speculate on the actions (or inactions) of this "God of the Gaps."
Islamic fundamentalists, who are not constrained by the intellectual disciplines of science or the Enlightenment, disregard this boundary and routinely see divine causality in the physical realm. As you may recall, an Iranian cleric recently proclaimed that earthquakes were the result of immodest dress among women. (Of course, this isn't much different from the late Jerry Falwell's pronouncement that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans because of its decadent life style . . . like Sodom and Gomorrah only on the Gulf.)
Educated persons who consider the Christian message, particularly those who live in the post-Enlightenment cultures of the West, will likely wrestle with this epistemological dilemma. The resolution is neither simple nor satisfying.
Genesis 6:5, 6:11
"Of course, this isn't much different from the late Jerry Falwell's pronouncement that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans because of its decadent life style . . "
Quote and source?
Did you mean to cite Pat Robertson rather than Jerry Falwell?
@ Jonathan - yes, I did. Thanks for providing the source and YouTube link . . .
@ James - thanks for providing the quotes from Genesis . . .
Mark: I also am pained when people stretch the bounds of metaphysics as in your Iranian cleric and Pat Robertson examples. Indeed science and metaphysics operate in different realms, to different ends, by different means, and with different standards. Anyone who wrestles with this stuff with intellectual integrity will, as you suggest, find that between the two, "resolution is neither simple nor [ultimately] satisfying" -- such is the way of mystery.
On one level, I'll buy into your notion of the reciprocal boundary between science and metaphysics. Scientific conclusions, properly bounded, must remain within the "is" and be silent about the "ought" -- and conversely, metaphysics can never demonstrate an "is" to scientific standards. It is futile (and inappropriate) to argue for the existence of God as though it can be proven in the same way as the morning sunrise. On another level, I'm not bought in to your reciprocal notion. Metaphysics is not simply that which is beyond "the boundary of what can be scientifically known." Metaphysics aims to take the "is" and make sense out of it to derive the "ought." Metaphysics will both work from the (truly) scientifically known and investigate beyond it.
By way of analogy with the USA legal system, science operates to a standard like that of criminal law, metaphysics to that of civil law. A scientific conclusion must be "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- no logical leaps allowed; no God-in-the-gap. Demonstrating causality to this standard is much harder than demonstrating correlation, and I find that causality is where scientists make the majority of their logical leaps of faith (as apparently with Ridgway's article). Nonetheless, it is perfectly valid for scientists to contemplate the metaphysical seeking insight for the design of their next physical experiment.
By contrast, a metaphysical conclusion requires only "a preponderance of the evidence" -- it must explain the world only so far as to provide a compelling way to live. If the surrounding data is compelling, I can live with a logical leap (faith) because, one way or the other, I must live my life, even if the data I have is inconclusive. In so doing, a metaphysical argument may indeed draw conclusions on the "is" (e.g., "Blessed are the...") -- though not so much about the physical world (and Robertson-style judgments require a whole other discussion).
With both science and metaphysics, people easily get religiously attached to an idea rather than living with conscious acknowledgment of mystery. And yes, in either realm, we go astray if we do not recognize and respect the limits of each -- but the two are not regular reciprocals.
@Randy - nice comment/analogy - although I may not agree with your notion that metaphysics can derive the "ought" from the "is." What "is" in the scientific/material sense never informs what "ought." Metaphysics must consider the "other" beyond the "is" to validly speak of what "ought." -jw
@ Randy - thanks for your feedback. You and I definitely share some common ground. But you made one statement that caused me to pause . . . and write :-)
You wrote: "Metaphysics aims to take the "is" and make sense out of it to derive the "ought." Metaphysics will both work from the (truly) scientifically known and investigate beyond it."
Some metaphyscists do this; others do not. For example, when Aristotle's epistemological method dominated the Church's thinking during the Middle Ages, arguments about reality and "what is" were made from First Principles, not from observation of "what is." Umberto Eco has a wonderful example of this in his book "The Name of the Rose". Two monks are arguing about how many teeth are in the mouth of a donkey. They used Aristotle's approach to find an answer. A young novitiate approached them and suggested that an easier way to do this was to simply "open the jaws of the ass and count the teeth." Whereupon, according to this tale, the older monks "set upon the young novitiate and beat him." His error? He sought to start with "what is" and not First Principles.
Evangelicals fall into the same epistemological trap as the older monks in this medieval tale. They argue from the basis of First Principles. In this case, the Bible, assumed to be the inerrant word of God, hermeneutics notwithstanding. For evangelicals, their apprehension of the Bible is their basis for "what is" and "what ought to be." Like Aristotle's logic, it can be compelling until you ask, "but please prove/validate/substantiate your assumptions." At that point, the reflexive response is identical to the Islamic fundamentalists: "but I have faith in the Word of God/Koran!"
If evangelical theologians and metaphysicists were to move past Aristotle's line of reasoning, and actually start with a discussion of "what is", then leading an exploration of what "ought to be" might have some credence. Imagine what might happen to the concept of sinful behavior if one were to integrate the findings of genetic scientists, cognitive psychologists, or neuroscientists. That, I believe, is part of the thought provoking insight of this blog's post regarding Ridgway's research at Northwestern University.
IMHO, today's evangelical mind is stuck in an endless cycle of circular reasoning that begins with an a priori assumption about Biblical texts and ends with the predictable endpoint of "and that's the way it is." Data from the world of "what is" is not allowed into this reasoning system unless it conforms to the a priori statements of the Biblical text (as understood by the preacher du jour). I quote from Jonathan Merritt's post above: "And that’s where orthodox Christian theology pushes back. The belief that sinfulness is a spiritual inadequacy that must be overcome rather than an inevitability that should be ignored is a fundamental part of the Christian gospel." Merritt tosses out the "what is" because it contradicts an a priori assumption he has made about the gospel message.
But this tension is not new and it is certainly not limited to biology. The bloodiest battle ever fought by this nation involved in part, a theological debate over the issue of slavery. As President Lincoln so eloquently stated in this second Inaugural address, "ours is a fight between two groups, each with their own view of God." The southern preachers had the Biblical text on their side: slavery is NOT condemned in either testament. Northern abolitionists used the Bible in their arguments but ultimately moved outside that space to appeal to decency and the biological fact ("what is") that an African slave is, in fact, a human and should not be enslaved. This despite the Supreme Court's famous Dred Scott decision in 1857 which stated that Africans had no right to citizenship.
Randy, I believe that if evangelicals could shift their epistemological method to one that sought to integrate "what is" with the insights of Jesus, genuinely new insights might emerge. But if the reasoning method continues to follow the same circular mode, their message could end up as irrelevant as other belief systems that consider science their enemy. The noted Islamic fundamentalist preacher, Fouad Ajami, stated in 2005: "Wherever I go in the Islamic world, its the same problem: cause and effect; cause and effect." Sound familiar?
James: By the "other" I presume you mean something like revealed truth (e.g., Bible, Qur'an, Upanishads). Each of these is an "is" -- it exists, and the question is what will we make of it. The history of how it came to be is an "is." From any of them, the "ought" is unreachable by scientific standards. By metaphysical standards, we can investigate them and conclude whether we can get to a compelling "ought" by a preponderance of the evidence.
Mark: I agree with your sentiment toward evangelistic fervor, yet I trace its cause to a different source. When you say, "but please prove/validate/substantiate your assumptions," I hear a longing for scientific standards. By those standards, the conversation becomes an impasse -- neither scientist nor evangelical has a valid response. No is-to-ought, no faith allowed. Based on genetic makeup, the only statement to be made by scientific standards is, "Such-and-such genetic makeup predisposes one to behavior A." The "ought" for behavior A is beyond reach (the case of irresistible genetic compulsion requires further discussion). The number of a donkey's teeth has no "ought" to it; the elder monks' error was using metaphysics against a purely scientific question.
First, let's pick on the scientist: Should we one day find a "murder gene," I would hope that murder would still be illegal, yet only metaphysical standards could make it so. To less sinister genetic traits, the predicament of the scientist-who-would-be-moralist is the same. Consider the (foreshortened) dialog: "Why should the A-gene mean that A is acceptable behavior?" -- "Because we ought to allow what nature encourages." -- "Why?" -- "Because we ought to have faith in nature's wiring." -- "Why?" ... and so on. Through such dialog, the scientist's metaphysics are revealed, as are the metaphysics in Ridgway's article.
Now, let's pick on the evangelical: The "reflexive response" to which you point reveals the evangelical desire to elevate consideration of the Bible to the level of scientific standards: "Since God says it and I believe it, you should adhere to it." -- "Why?" -- "Because it's the way things should be." -- "Why?" -- "Because if you don't agree, you're unholy." Ouch. The problem here is not that evangelicals place the Bible as a metaphysical foundation, but rather that, forgetting the mystery of faith, they often fail to operate with the very love and respect urged by their foundation, demanding others to be compelled by what they have found compelling.
But then, evangelicals and scientists make the same mistake. Rather than the Bible (et al), (secular) scientists place a different, less well-published body of thought as a metaphysical foundation, holding just as religiously to it, also forgetting the mystery of their (implicit) faith.
So, how do we pass the impasse? No doubt in a way that is not ultimately satisfying to either, yet I suggest that it starts with (a) recognition of the limits of both science and metaphysics and (b) true respect and tolerance. As commonly used, "tolerance" means "we agree that no one's metaphysical foundation is right (or wrong)." This is not tolerance, it is agreement. True tolerance is: "We (perhaps radically) disagree about metaphysical foundations of right and wrong, yet we will, through mutual respect and love, listen to understand what each other sees as compelling, then find and build from common ground toward a common and beautiful life together."
@ Randy - thanks for the feedback. In reviewing my comments, I realize that I've been unclear about an important point. Rather than using the word "science" in the strictest sense, I should have been using the word "reason," as defined in the Enlightenment.
By way of example, you state: "Should we one day find a "murder gene," I wold hope that murder would still be illegal, yet only metaphysical standards could make it so."
I beg to differ, strongly. An incredibly important dimension of Western life and democracy, rests on the notion that there is an independently, verifiable moral order that can be understood through the application of reason. In this worldview, a person's religious convictions or any religion's claims to revelatory insight, are not a requirement to understand what is good, moral, or just. Rather, this moral order can be apprehended outside of the metaphysical domain and arrived at through reason and discourse.
It is precisely this process that has enabled legislators in this country to move beyond the metaphysics of the 10 century BC in which the Book of Leviticus (20:10), for example, states that an adulterer should be stoned for their crime. Such an horrific practice is banned in this country by the Eighth Amendment in our country's Bill of Rights. However, in countries ruled by Islamic Shaira Law, this punishment continues because of their belief in inerrant truth of the Koran, as mediated by Mohammad in the 7th century AD.
And while the appeal to tolerance is certainly merited and is an important part of maintaining civil discourse, our citizens and legislators have concluded that it is not appropriate to tolerate slavery (as many evangelical Christians in the South did), or cruel and unusual punishment, or a violent assault on the borders and citizens of our country (as on 9/11). This, in spite of Jesus' teachings to "turn the other cheek."
Your final sentence regarding tolerance, mutual respect, and love is only possible in a post-Enlightenment culture, in which reason is seen as the final arbiter of these truths. The idea of listening, and building a common ground only works if we all agree that the metaphysical "truths" that some embrace are in fact, partial and incomplete, and that it is through civil discussion and debate that we find the Truth.
And the test for evangelicals, should they embrace this role of reason, includes this: can you support a society that concludes after reasoned debate that one or more of your metaphysical truths is in fact, wrong?
Mark: Wonderful (and civil) conversation -- thanks. As you have said, I think we're not far apart. I think I see where your concern lies: From theist/religious realms within metaphysics, people can (and do) use revealed texts to justify abhorrent practices. How should we deal with this possibility? As I understand it, the prescription you offer is, at least within the realm of public policy, to exclude religious metaphysics from the discussion and to use reason alone to derive a "verifiable moral order." I applaud the appeal to reason (reason is implied in my remarks by the word "compelling"), yet I believe it does not get us past our lack of ultimate satisfaction (as we have used that notion here).
I hear in your words ("independently, verifiable" - "outside of the metaphysical" - "we find the Truth") a view that the rationalist can, without metaphysics, achieve something like scientific assurance of moral conclusions. However, as with the scientist in our discussion earlier, successively asking "why?" reveals the rationalist's first principles and means of deriving them, which is to say it reveals the rationalist's (secular) metaphysics. The rational moralist can, at best, achieve not scientific assurance but rather only a compelling case to which others might assent -- perhaps even compelling enough to cause others to adjust their metaphysics. In the realms of morality, the foundations of rationalism and secular humanism serve the same purpose as religious beliefs, particularly in a postmodern world. Thus, in the face of a murder gene, murder remains illegal only by appeal to some ultimately metaphysical basis. There is no high ground from which the rational moralist can (validly) call for adherence to the inarguable Reasoned Truth.
That said, theists should indeed apply reason to revealed texts -- as well as non-rational, artistic means of approaching the revelations there. There's a longer conversation to have about it but, as I have found it, the reason to reject adulterer stoning (et al) is not that reason trumps revelation (or vice versa), but that the two work best symbiotically. Genesis 32:24-30 serves as a good metaphor (Jacob wrestles with God).
Where does that leave us? As you point out, my view of tolerance has a prerequisite. However, the prerequisite is not agreement on the same (rationalist or theist or Ridgway-esque) metaphysical foundation. As much as we might yearn for it, the existence of a "beyond a reasonable doubt" metaphysical foundation is not knowable to us beyond a reasonable doubt. In the face of this abyss, the ultimate foundations of civil society (my "tolerance") are love and respect combined with a realization of the pervasive and messy nature of metaphysics.
Appealing ultimately to their respective metaphysics, both rationalists and theists can and do arrive, rightly or wrongly, at the point where force (whether violence, majority rule, or court of law) becomes their chosen path. Before that point, we have much to learn from each other, there is much common ground to find, and there are many ways to make reasonable accommodation in love and tolerance. In developing public policy, neither the rationalist nor the theist should demand assent to their metaphysics, and the test for both is the extent to which they are willing to live with policy that is not ultimately satisfying to their beliefs.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Randy. Your post helps me understand our differences better and I do not believe we are far apart, at least not in my view.
I agree that if you ask the rationalist "why" about certain issues long enough, you will encounter the response, "just because." There are certain a priori statements that every rationalist will argue need no debate . . . but they are a priori nonetheless. Thomas Jefferson's appeal to "truths that are self evident" is reasonable if you agree that they are self evident :-) But in fact, some of them, such as the idea that all men are created equal, are not self evident to, for instance, a Muslim. Biology can offer an argument about the similarities within our species but when it comes to certain aspects of our humanity, arguments still rage about how similar some people really are. Add theology to the mix, and for instance, divide the world into saints and sinners, and the perceived differences loom large.
Earlier in my life, I longed for a certainty regarding a wide number of issues. That certainty flowed either from my personal conviction regarding the rectitude of the inerrant Word of God and the moral and theological positions that one could deduce from a reading of that text, to the certainty that some scientific disciplines can deliver (within well proscribed domains). For instance,most digital devices are designed to operate with a predictability and certainty that belie any ambiguity. The careful application of mathematics and physics lead to highly predictable and certain outcomes (unless you are an RF engineer working for Apple who ignores the degree to which contact by a human hand with an antenna can attenuate a radio signal . . . but I digress).
However, not only did I later begin to appreciate mystery -- not just as the domain of what had not yet been discovered or proven -- but I began to question whether my quest for certainty was in some way misplaced. That was followed by the discovery of a marvelous book by a neurologist, Dr. Robert Burton, who works at the Department of Neurosciences at Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital. Burton argues in his book, "On Being Certain," that feeling certain --- that feeling that we KNOW something -- is a mental sensation and not necessarily in any way connected with the evidence of facts. Burton argues that an increasing body of evidence shows that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. In other words, the feeling of knowing HAPPENS to us; we cannot MAKE it happen.
Most people I know would like to feel certain about many things and we would like to arrive at that certainty through sound reasoning or, if one has accepted the epistemological method of the ancients, by acceptance of what others claim to be revealed truth. But imagine for a moment a world in which one's personal feeling of certainty was not considered relevant or important to the debate. Imagine if certainty was seen as a sort of mood, as transitory as the feeling of happiness or sadness. How would we as individuals or as a society arrive at decisions? Could we be that dispassionate?
Should such a forum for public and private debate develop, I believe that we would all have to exercise greater care in whatever we said or claimed to be true. I believe that boundaries to both reason and metaphysics would snap into sharper focus and a shared awareness of these "edge conditions" would attenuate some of the louder voices in the community. And the use of power, certainly as a means of public policy, might be done so with a bit more reluctance and with more caution.
You posit that the ultimate foundations of a civil society are love and respect combined with a realization of the pervasive and messy nature of metaphysics. I share the view that love and respect are important to civil society but why do you believe that to be true? Given either Ridgway's claim to have found a biological basis for sin and some people's view that the Bible teaches a doctrine of original sin, how is it that we "born sinners" can be trusted to love and respect one another, especially when that society includes many who neither claim nor may not want to be a part of the community of the redeemed? And how do we find common ground? In fact, what is the nature of the common ground? Ideas we share? Ideas that result from agreed upon principles of reason? Assertions based on unsubstantiated or unsubstantiatable texts or sayings?
I look forward to your reply . . .
Many important questions you ask, Mark. Keep it up. Burton's work is quite interesting. I read a bit about it -- sounds like he's very certain of the results (sorry...couldn't resist). I'd be skeptical if Burton claims total and universal independence of certainty and reality, but at least some of his conclusions are dead on, and it is very useful to name and describe an emotion called certainty.
I find lots to like in your thought experiment about certainty. Certainty is a more comfortable place to live than ambiguity, mystery, and faith. I find that inerrancy is often a cry for certainty. Rationalists and scientists are often unaware of the faith they operate on. A la Burton, cultural and emotional pressures to be certain are strong both outside and within the church. Yet certainty quickly becomes entrenched pride; pride quickly blinds.
By contrast, if we realize the mystery we swim upon, it engenders humility (an oft misunderstood characteristic). At core, humility says, "I still have a lot to learn, so I'd better do a lot of listening." Humility realizes that, even if the Bible is inerrant, our understanding of it is not. Humility mitigates against premature scientific and rationalist conclusions. It helps us to live with proper mystery and faith. To your point, it attenuates one's own loud (and shrill) voice and use of power -- and "attenuate" is the right word: humility will still act when deemed appropriate, even forcefully if necessary (though reluctantly).
You ask why I view love (& mystery) as the foundations of civil society. The short answer is this: I find these foundations echoed in a broad swath of human thought and experience -- although the echoes are often "in reverse" as it were, in that harm comes when they are absent or misunderstood.
How I got to this view is a bit more involved. I listen to many -- e.g., Descartes, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the ancients, artists, scientists, Heidegger, von Balthasar, Kant, Sartre, Weil, Derrida, Lewis, church fathers, the Qur'an, the Bible, many others (I'm not as well-read as this sounds; let's say I'm well-exposed -- letting that have its multiple meanings) -- and do my best to play the apprentice to each, to grasp and wrestle with the core of each. Far more than any other single source, I find in the Bible a compelling, mysterious, deep, pervasive resonance -- that flies below the radar of inerrancy, claimed inconsistencies, and denominational dogma. There I learn that, in its complex and paradoxical simplicity, the Bible uniquely 1) sets humility as the foundation of knowing our limits and of learning, 2) sets love as the foundation of life and relationships, 3) shows that love is our free choice and we are not trustworthy with it, and 4) graphically demonstrates grace as humble love's restorative response to another's brokenness and failure. Testing this against all I see and experience, it is the most compelling view of life I have found. Seeing that there is nothing necessarily theistic about these four principles, I find their foundation in love & mystery to be a compelling basis for the pluralistic society around me.
The common ground we can begin with, I believe, are the notions that 1) there are laudable and despicable ways to act and 2) by and large, we are able to choose between the two. Though there is not universal agreement on which acts belong in which bucket (nor on the definitions of the buckets themselves), I find that there is universal agreement that the buckets exist. From there, humility and love broaden the common ground; pride and certainty shrink it. If indeed Ridgway's article presumes unwarranted certainty, it works against common ground.
A religious and metaphysical rendition of the same process (THEOSIS) which either explains the above or makes it irrelevant depending on ones personal take.
An Eastern Orthodox Conception of Theosis and Human Nature
Jonathan D. Jacobs
Though foreign and perhaps shocking to many in the west, the doctrine of theosis is central in the theology and practice of Eastern Orthodoxy. Theosis is “the ultimate goal of human existence”1 and indeed is a way of summing up “the purpose of creation”:2 That God will unite himself to all of creation with humanity at the focal point.
What are human persons, that they might be united to God? That is the question I explore in this paper. In particular, I explore an account of human nature inspired by an Eastern Orthodox conception of theosis. In section 1, I present a theological vision of theosis in the Eastern Church. In section 2, I offer an interpretation of what it might mean for human nature to become deformed by the fall and transformed by the Incarnation. Then, in section 3, I present an (admittedly speculative) account of human nature, based on a robustly metaphysical reading of an Orthodox conception of theosis. On that account|to overly simplify things, and postponing important qualifications we might say that a human being is the union of soul and body with God. Finally, given that account of human nature, I offer in section 3 some brief reflections on the prospects of a scientific anthropology.
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