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Warranted Christian Belief
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A. Force Majeure

If so, they are extraordinarily well hidden. One common suggestion, however, seems to be a sort of appeal to force majeure: we simply can’t help it. Given our historical position, there is nothing else we can do; we are all in the grip of historical forces beyond our control (this thing is bigger than either one of us). This reaction is typified by those who (like Harvey, Macquarrie, and Gilkey) claim that nowadays, given our cultural situation, we just don’t have any options. There are potent historical forces that impose these ways of thinking on us; like it or not, we are blown about by these powerful winds of doctrine; we can’t help ourselves. “The causal nexus in space and time which the Enlightenment science and philosophy introduced into the Western mind . . . is also assumed by modern theologians and scholars; since they participate in the modern world of science both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else,” says Gilkey (above, p. 394); another example is Bultmann’s famous remark to the effect that “it is impossible to use electrical light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”507507   Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), 5. Compare Marcus Borg’s (Jesus Seminar major domo) more recent comment: “to a large extent, the defining characteristic of biblical scholarship in the modern period is the attempt to understand Scripture without reference to another world because in this period the visible world of space and time is the world we think of as ‘real’ ” (“Root Images and the Way We See,” in Fragments of Infinity [Dorset, England, and Lindfield, Australia, 1991], p. 38; quoted in Huston Smith’s “Doing Theology in the Global Village,” Religious Studies and Theology, 13–14, nos. 2 and 3 [December 1995], p. 12). On the other side, note Abraham Kuyper, To Be near unto God, tr. John Hendrik de Vries (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1918). Writing not long after the invention of the “wireless,” he saw it (along with the telephone) not as an obstacle to traditional faith but as an aid to it: “This now comes to the help of our weak faith” (p. 50); and “There is now a telegraph without wire, which in its wondrous working has become a beautiful symbol for our prayer. Fellowship with God without any middle-means” (p. 341).

But isn’t this view—that we are all compelled by contemporary historical forces to hold the sort of view in question—historically naive? First, why think we proceed together in lockstep through history, all at any given time perforce holding the same views and making the same assumptions? Clearly we don’t do any such thing. The contemporary intellectual world is much more like a horse race (or perhaps a demolition derby) than a triumphal procession,508508   To adapt a remark of Jerry Fodor’s. more like a battleground than a Democratic party fund-raiser, where everyone can be counted on to support the same slate. At present, for example, there are many like Macquarrie, Harvey, and Gilkey who accept the semideistic view that God (if there is any such person) couldn’t or wouldn’t act miraculously in history. Of course this is not the view of nearly everyone at present; hundreds of millions would reject it. Far more people reject this view than accept it. (So even if Gilkey and the others were right about the inevitable dance of history, they would be wrong in their elitist notion to the effect that what they do is the current step.)

The utter obviousness of this fact suggests a second interpretation of this particular justification of Troeltschian HBC. Perhaps what the apologists really mean is not that everyone nowadays accepts this semideism (that is trivially false); it’s rather that everyone in the know does. Everyone who is properly educated and has read his Kant and Hume (and Troeltsch) and reflected on the meaning of the wireless and electric light knows these things; as for the rest of humanity (including, I suppose, those of us who have read our Kant and Hume but are unimpressed), their problem is simple ignorance. Perhaps people generally don’t march lockstep through history; still, those in the know do; and right now they all or nearly all reject special divine action.

Even if we chauvinistically stick to educated Westerners, this is still doubtful in excelsis. “The traditional conception of miracle,” Macquarrie says, “is irreconcilable with our modern understanding of both science and history”: to whom does this ‘our’, here, refer? To those who have gone to university, are well-educated, know at least a little science, and have thought about the bearing of these matters on the possibility of miracles? If so, the claim is once more whoppingly false. Very many well-educated people (including even some theologians) understand science and history in a way that is entirely compatible both with the possibility and with the actuality of miracles. Many physicists and engineers, for example, understand “electrical light and the wireless” vastly better than Bultmann or his contemporary followers, but nonetheless hold precisely those New Testament beliefs Bultmann thinks incompatible with using electric lights and radios. There are large numbers of educated contemporaries (including even some with Ph.D’s!) who believe Jesus really and literally arose from the dead, that God performs miracles in the contemporary world, and even that there are both demons and spirits who are active in the contemporary world. As a matter of historical fact, there are any number of contemporaries, and contemporary intellectuals very well acquainted with science, who don’t feel any problem at all in pursuing science and also believing in miracles, angels, Christ’s resurrection, the lot.

Once more, however, Macquarrie and the others must know this as well as anyone else; so what do he and his friends really mean? How can they make these claims about what ‘we’509509   We might call this the preemptive ‘we’: those who don’t agree with us on the point in question are (by comparison with us) so unenlightened that we can properly speak as if they do not so much as exist. Of course claiming royalty at the font does not automatically guarantee legitimacy.—we who use the products of science and know a bit about it—can and can’t believe? How can they blithely exclude or ignore the thousands, indeed, millions of contemporary Christians who don’t think as they do? The answer must be that they think those Christians somehow don’t count. What they really mean to say, I fear, is that they and their friends think this way, and anyone who demurs is so ignorant as to be properly ignored. But that’s at best a bit slim as a reason for accepting the Troeltschian view; it is more like a nasty little piece of arrogance. Nor is it any better for being tucked away in the suggestion that somehow we just can’t help ourselves. Of course it is possible that Gilkey and his friends can’t help themselves; in that case, they can hardly be blamed for accepting the view in question.510510   Some, however, might see here little more than an effort to gain standing and respectability in a largely secular academia by adopting a stance that is, so to say, more Catholic than the pope. This incapacity on their parts, however, is no recommendation of Troeltsch’s principles.

So this is at best a poor reason for thinking serious biblical scholarship must be Troeltschian. Is there a better reason? A second suggestion, perhaps connected with the plea of inability to do otherwise, is given by the idea that the very practice of science presupposes rejection of the idea of miracle or special divine action in the world. “Science proceeds on the assumption that whatever events occur in the world can be accounted for in terms of other events that also belong within the world,” says Macquarrie; perhaps he means to suggest that the very practice of science requires that one reject the idea (e.g.) of God’s raising someone from the dead. Of course the argument form

If X were true, it would be inconvenient for science; therefore, X is false

is at best moderately compelling. We aren’t just given that the Lord has arranged the universe for the comfort and convenience of the National Academy of Science. To think otherwise is to be like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys under the streetlight, on the grounds that the light was better there. (In fact it would go the drunk one better: it would be to insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.)

But why think in the first place that we would have to embrace this semideism in order to do science?511511   Here I can be brief; William Alston has already proposed a compelling argument for the claim I support—namely, that one can perfectly well do science even if one thinks God has done and even sometimes still does miracles. See his “Divine Action: Shadow or Substance?” in The God Who Acts: Philosophical and Theological Explorations, ed. Thomas F. Tracy (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), pp. 49–50. Many contemporary physicists, for example, believe that Jesus was raised from the dead; this belief seems to do little damage to their physics. To be sure, that’s physics; perhaps the problem would be (as Bultmann suggests) with medicine. Is the idea that one couldn’t do medical research or prescribe medications if one thought that God has done miracles in the past and might even occasionally do some nowadays? To put the suggestion explicitly is to refute it; there isn’t the faintest reason why I couldn’t sensibly believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and also engage in medical research into, say, Usher Syndrome or multiple sclerosis, or into ways of staving off the ravages of coronary disease. What would be the problem? That it is always possible that God should do something different, thus spoiling my experiment? But that is possible: God is omnipotent. (Or do we have here a new antitheistic argument? If God exists, he could spoil my experiment; nothing can spoil my experiment; therefore. . . .) No doubt if I thought God often or usually did things in an idiosyncratic way, so that there really aren’t much by way discoverable regularities to be found, then perhaps I couldn’t sensibly engage in scientific research; the latter presupposes a certain regularity, predictability, stability in the world. But that is an entirely different matter. What I must assume to do science, is only that ordinarily and for the most part these regularities hold.512512   As Alston argues. This reason, too, then, is monumentally insufficient as a reason for holding that we are somehow obliged to accept the principles underlying Troeltschian biblical scholarship.

It is therefore difficult to see any reason for supposing that Troeltschian scripture scholarship is somehow de rigueur or somehow forced on us by our history.


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