March 7, 2012

Faith Critically Examined

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Believing a thing to be so does not make it so, regardless of how sincerely and firmly the belief is held. An example of a firmly held belief that turned out to be completely wrong is the sixteenth century belief of the Catholic Church that the earth was the center of the universe—because they believed the Bible affirmed it to be so. A Polish scientist and churchman, Nikolas Copernicus, however, proved that the earth circled around the sun, which held a stationary position in the center of our solar system. The church’s view was wrong, and the dogma was eventually changed, but not before the church burned the monk-philosopher Giordiano Bruno at the stake for refusing to accept the church’s dogma. The critical evidence presented by Copernicus could not be denied by a reasonable person.

     An uncritical faith exposes a person to the risk of being ensnared in the web of the “true believer” or the religious charlatan, both of whom, motivated by different reasons, aim to bring a person under their influence, and the influence of their views of faith. In conservative Christianity both of them use the Bible successfully to exert influence over the unknowledgeable, incautious, and unwary. One saying that is now almost a by-word with some conservative groups is “if the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Any faith that demands such unquestioning trust in an ancient collection of documents is essentially an uncritical faith.

     On the other hand, persons who exercise critical judgment do not allow faith to demand that they affirm something they find to be patently untrue. How might that work, for example? A critical faith may be willing to affirm that Jesus healed people on the basis that their ailments were psychosomatic (physical illness induced by psychological causes), and faith was the trigger that accomplished their self-healing (Mark 5:34; 10:52). But those who observed the healing would not be able to make such fine modern distinctions and to them it would appear that Jesus had performed the healing. But incidents in which Jesus manipulates the natural world (usually referred to as “nature miracles” by biblical scholars) a person of critical faith would find patently impossible on the basis that the world, we now know, does not work by magic-like manipulation. So such things as the restoring of a withered hand to its former vigor (Mark 3:1-5) or changing the water to wine in Cana (John 2:1-11) as they are described in the gospels a person of critical faith would decline to affirm as historical events. A person of critical faith would likely not be persuaded by the belief that because Jesus was divine (or God) he could manipulate the natural world, since such claims were also made for others in the ancient world. Persons of critical faith do not allow religious dogma to determine for them either the nature of reality or the character of historical event.

     A critical faith is not unlike that of Job. The Job of the poetic sections of the book remains almost to the end a questioner. He does not settle for traditional answers, rejects the easy answers of his well intentioned friends, and continues to pressure God to explain himself. But in the end Job eventually capitulates before a barrage of perplexing unanswerable questions (chapters 38-39), and returns to traditional faith (42:1-6)—at least that is the suggestion of the romantic narrative ending to the book. I suspect, however, that in reality the critical thinker having escaped the worldview supporting the creeds and confessions of the church will never be able to return to the confines of traditional or populist faith.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 5:07pm

Loving your work. It all resonates with me. Are you still church attendee - if so how do you 'marry' your thinking with the creeds and structure of liturgy? Narelle from Australia
Posted by Narelle Friar on 3/21/2012 at 12:25pm
Good Morning Narelle,
Both are fair questions that you ask, and they deserve a much longer response than I can give here. But here is a brief response. I am not only an attendee but an active member of a conservative Southern Baptist Church in Springfield, MO. I am a regular member of a men’s Bible class. I make it a priority not to miss unless I have over-riding obligations. Church is basically about community and the members of our Sunday School Department at First Baptist Church have accepted us, warts and all. I don’t, however, attend worship services. I can talk in Sunday School but not in church.

As a non-liturgical Baptist I do not have the problem of the liturgy but I do not hold to the traditional confessions and creeds of the church. For how I make sense of things, I refer you to my essay in the book When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journeys (Polebridge, 2008). See also my introduction to the volume. My essay is entitled “Out of the Enchanted Forest. Christian Faith in an Age of Reason.”
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 3/22/2012 at 9:30am

Thank you for this, Charlie. Your words are thought provoking and “right on.”
Harrylyn and Charles
Posted by Charles & Harrylynn Sallis on 3/9/2011 at 5:30pm

Hi Charlie:
Enjoyed reading this post and your replies to others' comments. I think it's important to note that, apart from liberal Christians, many people believe in God (however they may define that term) without believing the Bible to be literally true: take people of the Muslim, Hindu, and Baha'i faiths, as well as Jews (who don't believe Jesus was a unique child of God--I think they see all of us as children of God). They would be shocked to be told they don't believe in God just because they have a different holy book, a different name for God, or have experienced the divine in a different way than Christians have.
Posted by Lee Penya on 3/9/2012 at 2:09pm

The question of Jesus' physical healings (now described as "magical thinking") and being impossible is addressed just as vehemently by some as Copernicus" observations. I hold the feasibility of "healing" as an unproved possibility. The proof is not in that this is not feasible. Recent findings in physics suggest that we are all connected in a ways little understood. Scientists can see the results empirically but as yet cannot explain why. Quantum Physics opens a whole new window on this question in my opinion and like never before leaves the door open. As you say it is a matter of pece0ption..
Posted by Judy Adams on 3/9/2012 at 2:08pm

Dear Charlie,

I really appreciate this blog. Anything that is not critically examined is worthless.

I want to comment on Jesus' healing. I really don't think that his healing, or any of the non medical healing strategies like prayer, the laying on of hands, shamanistic rituals are limited to psychosomatic conditions as you define them.

As a parish priest, I tried to convince the congregations I served that it was their duty to care for at least one homeless person and one mentally ill person (sometimes, of course, that might be the same person). As a result of that experience, it is very clear to me that homelessness causes physical illness as well as mental illness. It also is clear, that when a homeless person can accept, and is provided with, a stable residence, both conditions disappear. I think the same thing is true of any human situation where a person is severely denigrated by the community and thus alienated from it. The lack of affirmation expressed through physical contact can kill.

I see Jesus as a fulfilled human being whose extreme empathy and affection could bring a severely alienated person back into life mentally and physically. I have known and worked with some people with extraordinary healing skills. Every one of them was extremely empathetic and communicated their affection through the laying on of hands.

There is a whole body of literature relevant to my point of view. Unfortunately, most of it is relegated to some corner pocket of our culture as being scientifically unacceptable. That is probably due to an uncritical non-examination of the mystique of medical science.

Thanks for blogging, Charlie.
Posted by Peter Lawson on 3/7/2012 at 4:07pm

And thanks for commenting, Peter!
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 3/9/2012 at 11:04am

Really enjoyed reading this. I often wonder about these things....can you have faith but still realize that many things in the Bible cannot be true?
Mary Ann Amstutz
Posted by Mary Ann Amstutz on 3/7/2012 at 11:00am
Hi Mary Ann,
I can only answer your question partially. It depends whether your faith is in the Bible or God. I suppose if your faith requires that everything in the Bible be true, then you do have a problem—because everything in the Bible is simply not true. Many people (me included) do not think of the Bible as perfect or divine, but rather as a collection of texts representing diverse human responses to God representing many perspectives. The shape the writers’ faith took depended on their social, cultural, religious, and scientific understanding at the time of writing. They were not perfect and neither were the texts they produced. So yes one can have faith and believe that not everything in the Bible is true.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 3/9/2012 at 11:00am