Monday, August 29, 2016

Life After Modern Death

After my recent sermon on faith it is only proper to turn to the matter of George Clifford's two part "things no modern man can believe" attack upon supposedly traditional ideas of life after death. Stewart Clem's response over at the Covenant website covers most of the bases, but I have a few points of my own to add.

Clem's first two points I would like to take up in a bit more depth. He quotes this passage from Clifford:

[H]istoric Christian understandings of what happens when a person dies, views that usually presume an empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection, are increasingly anachronistic in view of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology.
and a little further on, Clifford supplies a specific finding:
Astronomers, after losing their initial clashes with Christianity, have triumphed over Christian efforts to cling to literal interpretations of the Bible’s three-tiered cosmology (heaven, earth, and hell). Heaven and hell, if they exist, are almost assuredly not actual physical places.
OK, let's start with some corrections. The whole three universe story thing is a pretty modern interpretation: the earliest usage I could quickly find was by Minot Judson Savage, a Unitarian active in the later 1800s. I'm not going to get into the argument as to whether this is the picture of Genesis, but it is manifestly not the medieval Ptolemaic model, Dante notwithstanding; nor, when pressed, would they have agreed that heaven and hell were physical in the modern sense. Likewise, the more or less singular incident of Galileo has been mythologized into a permanent church versus science conflict which is also a product of 19th century rationalism. Fundamentalism, for all its flaws, is a reaction to this secular encroachment into the religious topics, not an ancient mode of thought. And this isn't just Clifford's fault. Neil deGrasse Tyson stated in the new Cosmos that Michael Faraday was raised in a "fundamentalist" faith, but the truth is that The Fundamentals would not be published until half a century after his death. Faraday and F. C. Baur, the father of the "Tübingen School", are almost exact contemporaries, but higher criticism really didn't hit English religion until a few years before Faraday's death.

The secularist narrative of its triumph over the Dark Ages (meaning not the period between the fall of Rome and high Middle Ages, but rather anything before the self-styled Enlightenment) is heavily invested in these anachronisms, but what ought to be increasingly anachronistic is this recourse to these highly unhistorical claims about how the ancients and medievals thought about natural science, the spiritual, and the nature of miracles. And it isn't as though nobody ever thought about these questions. Clifford says at one point:

First, what is the nexus between the spiritual and the physical? That is, how does the immaterial spiritual interface with the material, physical world? No explanation of that interface has gained widespread traction among scientists and theologians. In the absence of such an interface, how can humans, whose senses and cognitive processes are all physical, think, speak, or otherwise describe, much less interact with, the spiritual?
Now, surely any sophomore philosophy student can pick this apart. It's ridiculous to insist on a phenomenology in which the only things that happen are those for which there is some prior explanation, whether or not it is believed. Indeed, Christianity has, as rule, denied that such an "interface" is knowable, never mind whether "interface" is even a good word for what happens. Even among unbelieving science fiction authors and computer scientists, the notion that human "cognitive processes" are "physical" loses traction, for the notions that those cognitive processes could be represented in computational hardware, or that neurons could be fed stimuli quite unlike those of our six senses, are old and unsurprising. Consciousness is potentially metaphysical even in its physicality; nobody knows for sure, and beyond the highly questionable Turing test, nobody has any idea how to be sure. In the presence of the unfathomable and investigation-defying supernatural, it is not at all hard to do without the "ghost in the machine" reductionist caricature and live with a "soul" whose nature is likewise unknowable.

And it isn't as though people haven't ever talked about these problems. The whole thing seems to be founded in ignoring centuries of theologians and philosophers, preferring instead to take materialist positions that have been answered over and over. Or to put it in other words, what we're seeing here is a severe loss of philosophical nerve. All too many, now, have begged the question by declaring God dead, but instead of pushing back, theologians have, more or less futilely, sought the approval of the secular academy by conceding the battlefield. To take for granted what modern man cannot believe is to take irreligion as an axiom, but as there are modern men who do not believe so, the "axiom" is not so axiomatic, and men who know religion should be questioning it, not taking it without question.

What we're seeing here, then, is an emotional rather than a genuinely intellectual response. So what is going on here? That shall have to wait for the next post.

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