May 14, 2008

Yesterday, in an already much remarked upon column, David Brooks reviewed the state of the kulturkampf  between “€œassertive atheists”€ and “€œdefenders of faith”€ by way of a discussion of developments in neurobiology.  Brooks”€™ central insight is that the “€œcognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible”€ by creating a new species of believer Brooks dubs the “€œneural Buddhist”€”€”people who believe the “€œfaith”€ inherent in all religions reaches a universal human truth and experience of transcendence which is shorthanded as “€œgod.”€  These neural Buddhists will create “€œnew movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation.”€

Brooks”€™ piece is noteworthy for its insight that belief in God has never been very threatened by modern science, but the Bible is.  This has the potential to open up new and possibly productive arguments in the by now stale and boring debate between “€œscience”€ and “€œfaith.”€

But Brooks gets the causal connection all wrong.  Neurobiology is merely an easy fall-guy for the threat posed to organized religions based largely on sacred texts (as was Darwin before); a threat that has been a long time in the making during a drawn out historical period of cultural declension.

The Bible is at risk primarily due to the declining standards of rigor and membership which are the social phenomena most in need of some steely analysis.  Because beneath the decline of real standards lurks the soft threat of social ostracizing and the unhappy fate of the cultural outcast.  Modify your attitude or else!     

The newly imposed rigor for what a friend of mine calls “€œrearranging the Feng Shui of academic life”€ can mean only one thing: that every act, idea, and relationship must be expressed with the pantomime of egalitarian uncertainty, opinion, and doubt.  Naturally, this is complete excrement and represents a total rejection of the classical model of learning in which there were only two rules: 1) accept that you are not the master and not even close; and 2) take your beatings and work harder. 

Brooks”€™ insight that it is the Bible being threatened, not today’s bricolage of faith, demonstrates that people, probably including Brooks, have no idea how texts, myth, and cult work as historical and cultural forces.  Consider the recent rise of vanity presses and diploma mills.  We”€™ve all received the spam advertising these services and by all accounts the fake qualification business is booming.  In a society that has rejected the historical function of texts and myth, people begin to confuse the possession of a discreet object (a “€œbook,”€ a “€œdiploma,”€ or “€œfaith”€) with the accomplishment and public esteem they really desire.  As this breakdown occurs it is driven by a resentment that perceives “€œfaith”€ or “€œauthorship”€ as a kind of exclusive club which they either no longer know how to enter or do not have the chops to do so.  And they certainly cannot accept that they might not be allowed in under any circumstances.

Trading on this confusion layered with generalized idiocy and low self-esteem, the credentialing industry (including the massive “€œfaith credentialing”€ industry) seeks to remedy existential unrest with a piece of paper that requires anything but hard work and talent.  Has a star been named after you yet?

And this is how many people view even formerly legitimate faiths, diplomas, or other indices of human struggle with existence.  Legitimate and illegitimate accomplishments collapse in on each other.  Americans do not now know what the fixed standards are for quality, competency, and real achievement in any area of life (certainly not in the area of faith), except maybe sports.  If you tell them they will deride you as an elitist.

This is now endemic and in fact fundamental to the nation: our citizens habitually dislike and rail against established institutions that are necessarily particularist and exclusive.  When they are healthy the institutions don”€™t care what outsiders think of them, they put big demands on those who want in and they remain unapologetically “€œelitist.”€  The rabble is motivated to start new, more open and inclusive churches, universities, presses, record labels, etc. out of a reactive need that lacks real direction.  Well-founded traditional institutions including the Christian church float in this corrosive ooze which threatens and erodes those institutions bit by bit.

Paradoxically, this intolerable rule of the new class of mediocre-elite is partly the fault of the rise of modern science itself, and of a fundamental fallacy at the root of both the institution of scientific discovery and the modern Church.  Alfred North Whitehead named it the fallacy of the misplaced concrete

The enormous success of [the enlightenment’s] scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact.  Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined.  It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes.  There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind.  But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the [wrongful] ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century.

Following Whitehead, our greatest mystic philosopher of the 20th Century, Eric Voegelin, noted that the fallacy of the misplaced concrete “€œbecomes the vehicle of the trend toward materialism in the sense of a worldview wherein all realms of being are reduced to the one and true reality of matter”€ which in turn leads to “€œthe belief that human existence can be oriented in an absolute sense through the truth of science.”€  The social “€œpreoccupation with science and the possession of scientific knowledge has come to legitimate ignorance with regard to all problems that lie beyond a science of phenomena.”€  Growth in scientific knowledge is “€œparalleled by an unspeakable advancement of mass ignorance with regard to the problems that are existentially the important ones.”€

Voegelin explained the fallacy with this illustration:

A plant is a plant.  You see it.  You don”€™t see its physical-chemical processes, and nothing about the plant changes if you know that physical-chemical processes are going on inside.  How these processes will result in what you experience immediately as a plant (a rose or an oak tree), you don”€™t know anyway.  So if you know these substructures in the lower levels of the ontic hierarchy and go into the physical, chemical, molecular and atomic structures, even farther down, the greater becomes the miracle how all that thing is a plant.  Nothing is explained.


If one seeks to construct an explanation of a plant”€”or a soul, or a text”€”from the material knowledge gained through science he commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.  “€œIf you deform your experience by trying to explain what you experience by the things which you don”€™t experience by which you know only by science, you get a perverted imagination of reality”€”if you see a rose as a physical or atomic process.”€

This “€œscientistic ignorance becomes a civilizational disaster because the substantial ordering of existence cannot be achieved through the acquisition of knowledge in the phenomenal sense.”€  The problem proceeds beyond mere ignorance (which can be remedied, though not easily) when the “€œbelief in the self-sufficient ordering of existence through science is socially entrenched.  … The spiritual desire, in the Platonic sense, must be very strong in a young man of our time in order to overcome the obstacles that social pressure puts in the way of its cultivation.”€  This creates social stratification through the mechanisms of prestige and various economic incentives.  It also gives rise to what Voegelin calls “€œaggressive dilettantism”€ in matters outside the narrow purview of the expertise possessed by the scientist and imposed as a standard on all others.  “€œWhat the scientistic dilettante cannot understand must not be proposed in discussions of a problem.”€ 

Adding to the complexity of the problem”€”and to the reserve of black comedic material being accrued by our culture”€”is the parallel phenomena of what one might call scriptural materialism in the American church.  It is the faith-based version of the fallacy of the misplaced concrete and can be seen in the anxiety and hostility among American Christians toward the historicity of texts and textual variations and proliferations.  This anxiety both undermines and explains the popular and constructed conception of the Reformational rise of scripture as based in the unqualified good of truth and accuracy enabled by the emergence of print culture and a class of intellectuals engaged in ensuring the truth and accuracy of materials published for public benefit. 

Brooks is correct, where two false concretes vie for supremacy, the socially sanctioned scientistic fallacy will destroy the biblicist and fideistic fallacy.  False gods brook no opposition.  Voegelin wryly comments that “€œwhen the faithful become fundamentalist, one cannot blame the intellectuals if they take them at their word and make nonsense of God or the gods.”€

Again, the problem returns to generalized civilizational decline and democratization of effort and, correspondingly, of achievement.  Developing an understanding of God and the Bible that medicates the pain of the tensions of existence may be understandable, but it does not make for an adequate beginning from which to develop the substance of faith.  Clearly, a lot of American Christians and other “€œreligious”€ types are petrified of pain and death; and they are also afraid that at bottom they lack belief in and/or are angry at God.  Intelligent adults who think about God and the Bible the same way they think about their 401(k) accounts are scriptural materialists and strike me as atheists in denial.  I suspect they are mainly concerned with producing and protecting respectable, adult, modern, intellectual constructions of “€œreligious faith”€ because this is the only way they know to protect an experience of faith that has not only become very distant but is also largely inaccessible because there is too much effort involved.

The development of doctrine, scriptural interpretation, and the art of theology in general has historically been understood as a process of discreet uncovering of oneself and others in service of wholeness, health, and prudential wisdom.  True theologians know that they are in the business of creating secondary inspirations that are “€œfilters”€ through which the faithful can be exposed to the rawer and more immediate human experience of transcendence which is at the heart of the Bible.  So long as the secondary inspirations restore and preserve a faithful openness and proper tension in the soul towards transcendence while also insulating us from its terrifying implications, they produce health and wholeness.  Which is to say they produce the strength to suffer in faith, hope, and love.  We cannot all be Desert Fathers, and if we could, there would be no need for theology.  Even Moses, after all, saw only God’s hindquarters.


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