Sunday, 25 February 2018

Faith vs Scientism- Romans 4- Lent 2

In the letter to the Romans, the faith that Paul is talking about is trust in God to do what seems impossible. Abraham and Sarah believed in God to give them a child, even in their old age. In a sense, it was a promise to bring life out of a dead womb. Paul relates this to the faith Christians are to have. Just as Jesus was resurrected- life out of a dead tomb- so Christians trust God to bring life out of death. 

Being “right with God” doesn’t come from obeying the law. You can obey a lot of rules while not really trusting God. Actually, Abraham didn’t have any rules to follow. He had no Law. He trusted in God and the promise that was made. Faith is a relationship word. It isn’t about proofs. It isn't really about knowledge. It is a recognition that God is in control. Faith is choosing to trust that God is good and will follow through on promises made. Faith is trust in God’s actions and God’s motivations.

Faith has become a tricky thing in our society. When I think about talking about faith, I feel this roadblock. There is this whole hidden mental framework that is all around us, but we don’t really see it. We are like fish swimming around, but we don’t really notice the water because it is all around us all the time. Sometimes it is worth drawing our attention to the framework. It can be more powerful when it exists hidden in the shadows.   

Generally, our society assumes a way of looking at the world that is sometimes called materialism[1]. Materialism, in a philosophical sense, doesn’t mean being obsessed with money, which is how we use the word in an everyday sense. Philosophically, materialism means something like “what you see is what you get”. Matter is all that matters. This life is all there is. There is no supernatural reality out there. The universe amounts to the interaction of matter and energy according to the physical laws of the universe. And there is nothing else. The universe came into being with a Big Bang, and some day it will all fade away into the heat death of the universe. The things you do are determined by your genes and the way your psychology has reacted to the things you have experienced. … The assumptions of materialism are in the background when we start talking about faith. That’s the water we are swimming in.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has tried to describe the process of secularism.[2] He describes how Europe in the 1500’s went from being a culture that assumed God and the reality of the supernatural, to the reality we are faced with that generally assumes the supernatural is not real. Academic discourse generally assumes an agnostic or atheistic worldview. Most public discussion assumes the same. Religion is pushed to the edges of our society as being something like a private hobby for those who are into it (but please don’t talk about it or we’ll roll our eyes and talk about you behind your back). Or, religion is (at worse) a superstition that doesn’t belong in the modern world- Some might even think it’s dangerous. Religion, in its various forms, is something weak people need when they can’t face the facts, or it is tolerated as a part of someone’s culture. So, Islam might be respected, but not because it might speak truth. Rather, it is treated respectfully out of a desire to be “inclusive” and “accepting”, or maybe out of fear of being labeled a “bigot” towards a foreign culture and people.

In the secularized world the universe is a machine. The gears of the universe spin according to the principles of physics. The universe is unconscious. It is just stuff- matter- things and unconscious energy. There is no real ultimate purpose. Human beings are just animals who have developed over time to have certain attributes because it was helpful for survival. We are survival machines that exist partly due to chance.

As we became secular, God was pushed to the fringes of accepted and respectable thought. This thinking even infiltrated the minds of Christians. They whittled down their beliefs to what was respectable and defensible in a secular world. … This is where Deism came into being. It is the belief in a God that created, but who then walked away. It is a God who doesn’t interfere. But, it is a gutted religion with no real room for those things that define a belief system. No real room for prayer except for it being psychologically helpful. No room for ritual, except for it being an action that binds the community together. There was some room left for God as a source of morality, but even that was often suspect as the culture of the Bible was felt to be less evolved than modern culture (and every age feels more evolved than the previous age). Religion became internalized and personalized. Authority, in the realm of religion, was mostly removed. Authority, if there was any, was now grounded in personal experience. Really, there was no longer any “truth” when it came to religion. It came down to what was "true" for "me". But any objective religious truth "out there" was almost offensive. … All this is in the background as we talk about faith. It is the current we are fighting against as we seek faith.

These assumptions seep into the mind of our society and suddenly they are assumed without the need for proof. People in our society weren't convinced of materialism at a meeting where proof and arguments were presented and then they decided to change their mind about how the universe works. It was an assumption that was in the air and they breathed it in over and over and over, until it just became a part of them. The scientist and the academic become the new priests. Their word becomes trusted as law. If you want to grant a statement authority in our society you say, “scientists say…”. The general public don’t usually do experiments themselves, so they don't really have personal first hand experience with the scientific method. But, they have faith in the scientists and academics who tell them what they have seen- like Moses coming down off the mountain to tell the people. 

These materialist beliefs are assumptions about how the world works. Assumptions aren’t based on facts. It is an assumption on their part that consciousness is confined to the human brain, and when that brain dies, so does the consciousness of that person. It is assumed, but not proven, that the natural world has no purpose. It is assumed that there are consistent laws that govern the behavior of matter and energy. It is assumed that we aren’t in a reality like the matrix. These are assumptions that aren’t provable by science. They are assumed starting points.[3]

I should say that I am not against science. I married a molecular biologist. In various churches I served I had as parishioners both a head of a chemistry department at a university, and a particle physicist who worked on the God particle and was regularly invited to CERN. I recognize science as a tool, but it is not a tool for every job. I’m against the assumption that science can answer all our questions. For example, science can’t tell us about right and wrong, and science can’t tell us what is beautiful. Science can't tell us about the meaning of life, or why there is something rather than nothing. Those who assume that science can answer every question, and impose materialism onto science, have shaped their version of science into a kind of religion.[4] They see religion and science as being the same kind of creature and answering the same kind of questions.

I once heard a story about a scientist who was on his hands and knees looking through the grass in his front lawn. Some of his students walked by and asked what he was doing. He said he lost his watch and was looking for it. The students offered to help and they all got on their hands and knees and started combing through the grass. After about 45 minutes the students hadn’t found anything and one of them asked the professor, “where did you see it last?” He answered, “in my study”. Shocked the student shot back, “why are we looking out here then?” “The light is better out here”, he said. … Science can give us a lot of confidence in certain areas of knowledge, but not everything that can be known is out where the light is bright. God will not fit into the test tube. That is not the way to go about searching for God.

So when we talk about having faith, or trust, in God, this is what we are facing. The waters we are swimming in as we get our education, and as we watch the news, assumes an agnostic or atheistic universe. Over the years those assumptions penetrate out minds without our really even knowing it. The ideas are just there, we haven’t been convinced of them by an argument, they are just there like the air we breathe. And as Christians we sometimes find ourselves having to fight against these ideas that intrude into our minds.

In the letter to the Romans, the faith that Paul is talking about is trust in God to do what seems impossible. Just the sheer existence of God can seem impossible in our society. In a materialistic mechanical view of the universe, senior citizens don’t conceive children, and the dead aren’t resurrected. … Sometimes we are holding onto our trust in God by our fingernails.

I don’t have any scientific experiments to show you that can help you trust in God. That’s not the way to go about it anyway. There is no law, there is no lab, that will guarantee God for you. Paul talks about the error of using the law to guarantee God being for you. Faith, trusting in God, is a relationship. You are trusting someone. Faith is like trusting in your surgeon before you go into surgery. Faith is when a spouse trusts the other to love them and work for the benefit of their relationship. … Faith isn’t about knowledge of facts. Faith is trust in a person. And the materialism we are swimming in is fighting against you knowing and trusting that person.

So what do we do? … Materialism has soaked into us through the society we participate in, the way we are educated, the news we read, the music we hear. It is all a vast liturgy that shifts our mind without the need for the direct use of arguments and proofs. They are assumptions that we slowly take on as our own. 

To counter that we need to soak ourselves in different assumptions.  We soak ourselves in God’s story. We read Scripture, everyday. We pray, everyday. We participate in eating the bread and drinking the wine- and we fight against the thought telling us that nothing special is happening in that moment. We enter into God’s story that tells you that you are not here by accident. You are wonderfully made by your Father, the Creator of the universe, who has every hair on your head counted. You are so loved that God came as Jesus Christ so that you would know Him and so He can save you. He was even willing to die for you. Your loving Father is constantly seeking after you- always trying to help you- always showering you with love, even when you don’t see it. … Trusting in God means trusting that story, and being soaked in that story, more than the materialist story that tells you we are in a purposeless, unconscious universe, and are here by accident. Just as Abraham and Sarah trusted that God could bring life from a dead womb- and just as Paul trusted that the resurrection of Jesus was the first of many resurrections that were to come- so we are called to trust God’s love for us in the face of materialist voices that tell us the future is death and meaninglessness. 

[1] There are a number of different ways to define a metaphysical framework the rejects the supernatural. For example see naturalism, and physicalism.

[2] A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. It is notoriously hard to get through- both because of length and language. If you want to learn his ideas I would recommend James K. A. Smith’s How (not) to be Secular

[3] Rupert Sheldrake, the Science of Spiritual Practice. The conclusion gives an interesting summary of secularism. 
If you are interested in learning about some research that challenges materialist assumptions you might want to look at Sheldrake's Science Set Free.
I don't agree with everything Sheldrake says, but I like the challenge he poses to materialism. In other books he shows research regarding dogs who know when their owners are coming home, as well as the sense of being stared at, which he concludes are experiences that are verified through research.     

[4] Sometimes called Scientism. “Metaphysics” is an overall system that the physical understanding of the universe sits into. “Meta” means “after” or “beyond”. Metaphysics is a theory about what is beyond physical reality. Science can’t really say anything about metaphysics, since science is concerned with the physical universe by definition. The minute a scientist comments on God the scientist has left the realm of Science and has entered the realm of philosophy or religion.

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