Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Literalism" and fideism

...we should base our beliefs about natural history no less than human history on the weight of the evidence, remaining very open to where the evidence might lead. Many literalists, though, live with a visceral terror, thinly veiled behind their statements of dogmatic certainty and superior faith, that the entire religious edifice they have dedicated their lives to constructing could at any moment come crashing down upon their heads. Theirs is a theology conceived as a high-stakes game of Jenga. Whatever you do, don't touch the bricks at the base of the tower.

The foundational importance of creationism for all Christian belief and practice is allegedly self-evident from the objective words of Scripture, so that strict literalism on Genesis cannot be subjectively denied by anyone who truly has faith in the Bible's authority and has read Scripture with intense inner devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. All external sources of knowledge, including even one's direct observations of empirical reality, must be regarded with an attitude of skepticism and doubt until situated in the reconstructed tower of knowledge built upon those putatively incontrovertible biblical foundations. Literalism and young earth or young life creationism are therefore varieties (although some creationists may protest otherwise) of the theological and epistemological stance known as fideism. They rest upon the conviction that human reason left to its own ways is not merely inadequate to arrive at full theological knowledge but in some sense antithetical or hostile to faith. [Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 44-5]

In this book, Osborn continues his attack on creationists as being narrow-minded fideists for quite some pages, attributing this narrow, terror-filled mindset to all YECs. I must say it always amuses me when people think they know the mindset of ALL YECs. After all, I don't remember when was the last time YECs, at least the respectable ones, have ever psychoanalyze their opponents.

So are there professed YECs who are fearful of the unknown, who refuse to read scientific literature and any others that oppose their mental "Jenga" tower edifice? Perhaps. But what does this have to do with the issue at all? Even if, let's say, all YECs fit that anti-intellectual Fundamentalist mold, that does not disprove young earth creationism one bit.

The problem comes when people accept uncritically the accusations of Liberals who mock those who hold to the faith during the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy. Since the Liberals thought of themselves as progressivists, those who oppose them must, by definition, be backwards, otherwise their cause is called into question. The Liberals controlled most of the Academy, and so their baseless accusations are repeated as fact. To tar conservatives (both Reformed and Fundamentalists) as anti-intellectual simpletons, they found or manufactured the most egregious examples of anti-intellectualism and trumpeted that as the beliefs and behaviors of a typical conservative. A lie repeated many times sometimes can even be believed by its opponents as true and thus it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a phenomenon very much like that of Stockholm syndrome.

We have already seen this in the revisionist history concerning creationism. The first thing to do in attacking YEC is to deny its legitimacy, its standing as a viable theory. The revisionist history makes it out to be a creation of a quack scientist, a Seventh-Day Adventist by the name of George McGready Price. After all, for those who believe in the Bible, who would actually want to be associated with quack science and a group that is outside the pale of orthodoxy? Who wants to be associated with quacks who predict the second coming of Christ (and failed)? All of this revisionist history is meant to delegitimize creationism as something even worthy of being considered. After all, if a theory is not worth considering, one does not even have to deal with the actual arguments, or lack of them.

Osborn of course continues with his psychoanalysis of the "mindset" of YECs. It is all very easy to make general accusations, but proof is hard to come by. It is insufficient to claim creationism as being foundationalist, because Foundationalism in some forms is the majority view held throughout the centuries even before Descartes. Descartes' contribution was to bring the issues of first principles more clearly to the fore, and to transfer the axiom from revelation to reason. The attack against Foundationalism is ridiculous, for the simple reason that all beliefs are to some extent either foundationalist, or incoherent. Start questioning anything, and in the end there will be a body of truths, or one truth, that cannot be really questioned. Call them "basic beliefs" or whatever you like, but every system of thought have certain beliefs that its adherents take to be true because they just are. Ask an empiricist why they should trust their senses, and it is unlikely they can give you a real answer, at least not an answer from empiricism (which would make them a non-empiricist). Osborn makes a lot of grand claims, but where is the actual proof for all of them?

To pile on the manure, Osborn further claims that it is the belief of fundamentalists and creationists that "human reason left to its own ways is not merely inadequate to arrive at full theological knowledge but in some sense antithetical or hostile to faith." I must say this is really astonishing, because that IS the historic Christian position. That is why Anselm says Credo ut Intelligam, and not the other way around. The Christian tradition down through the ages have always rejected appeals to pure reason apart from revelation. That is why Rationalism from Descartes onwards have been opposed by confessional Reformed theologians.

The main problem with Osborn's accusations is that it is a mirror image of Liberalism in all its forms. It assumes that all educated and knowledgeable scholars must agree with them, since their liberal conclusions is so plain those who reject them must be idiots. Nevermind that the best Reformed and Evangelical scholars have read the liberals, and yet we reject their conclusions. Those of us who are not part of the Fundamentalist anti-intellectual fringe actually DO read books we disagree about (after all, why would I otherwise want to read this book which disagrees with me), even heretical books. We are not afraid of being friends with those we disagree with, or inviting them to dinner and having conversations. And that is the problem Liberals have, since in their system, people like us are not supposed to exist. That is why they must demonize us and relegate us to the fringes, because otherwise it can be seen that theirs is not the only "scholarly" way.

Creationism is not fideism. Rather, we see the relation between facts and theories differently. We do not believe there are such things as "brute facts," but all facts are interpreted in some fashion. Also, with knowledge about the nature and limitations of science, we are unafraid of what the sciences can show.

Osborn continues to go at this drivel for another ten or more pages, which is really sad. All these serve no real purpose except to provide more ammo for misrepresentation and character assassination, and is not much different from the heckling of members of Westboro Baptist, i.e. they both serve only to reinforce stereotypes and create antagonism.


Ron said...

"Drivel"? "Manure"? Daniel, normally I wouldn't dignify a blogger who resorts to language like this with reply. Your words ironically confirm what I have written about the spirit that animates much though by no means all of contemporary creationism. Still, in the event that you are still open to reasoned dialogue in a spirit of friendship with those you disagree with, I will offer the following for your consideration:

First, I at no point offer a "psychoanalysis of the mindset of YECs". I do apply Erikson's theories to fundamentalists but I also make clear in my book that not all literalists are fundamentalists and not all fundamentalists are literalists on Genesis. Throughout my book I include examples of a number of young earth creationists, including my own grandparents (!), who defy the stereotype of rigid and doctrinaire fundamentalists. It is disappointing that in your haste to criticize you have treated my actual words in the book so carelessly (I hope not willfully dishonestly). I have no particular quarrel with young earth creationists or literalists provided only that they are fully honest about the difficulties they face and do not attempt to define others out of Christian community.

You proceed to spend a great deal of time arguing for the necessity of foundational or properly basic beliefs, ignoring the fact that I make the same point in my book (with reference to the film "The Godfather" and the doctrine of the Trinity). But recognizing the importance of foundational beliefs is not the same as holding to an epistemology of strong foundationalISM. If you actually read my book you know this because I discuss the difference between an epistemology that builds on the assumptions of Descartes and others vs. one that builds on the kinds of assumptions held by a Christian like N. T. Wright who I also discuss at some length as offering a better way forward.

Then there is your reference to Anselm. Perhaps you think that using Latin phrases without translation is enough to convince whoever might be reading your postings, but the phrase "credo ut intelligam" means simply belief seeking understanding--not that human reason is HOSTILE to faith. In Catholic theology, philosophy is seen as being anterior and complimentary to theology; one does not deny one's reason or one senses in the name of faith as in some forms of Protestant fideism. Again, not ALL creationists are fideists (who when push comes to shove deny reason or empirical evidence). I nowhere claim that. But when, for example, creationists tell us (as many do) that God created the world with the appearance but not the actuality of deep time (false tree rings, etc), they are not following the way of Anselm or Aquinas but the way of pure fideism. These ways of thinking about the creation are in fact impervious to any scientific evidence whatsoever. What a great shame that you have been unwilling or unable to attend to the kinds of distinctions I make in the book or to enter into a serious conversation about these very real problems.

PuritanReformed said...


the issue with strong words is that you spend 10+ pages insulting the intelligences of creationists. Yes, I know you have qualifiers like the examples of your grandfather. Would it be fine if I likewise do the same? So will you be fine if I say, "Most Theistic Evolutionists are idiots except for a few that I have met"? I doubt it.

You see, the problem here is that you have no problems insulting creationists as being basically anti-intellectual dunces and cultists. Do you even know how insulting such language is? Or is it using words such as "cult" basically fine, while using words like "drivel" or "manual" is not? What's the difference? Note also that I use those comparisons of your reasoning, not you as a person.

I do not "define" others out of the Christian community. That is the role of the Church, and she has already defined the faith in the ecumenical councils and the Reformed Confessions.

Furthermore, yes, I do not say that you are totally against foundations. But I fail to see your distinction when you go on to attack creationism as basically built upon the foundation of Descartes. Was John Calvin a "foundationalist" when he spoke of creation in 6 days? Was Martin Luther? Was James Ussher, or many of the Reformed Scholastics? How about Zacharias Ursinus? The problem with such identification is that you pick up one particular version of creationism (the Fundy version) and think that represents all of Creationism. SDAs like George McGready Price are easy targets, but if you truly wish to deal with creationism as a whole, why not deal with its best representatives? I admit large portions of what calls itself "creationism" could fit your accusations, but why should you use them as your foil?

Yes, I know what "Credo ut Intelligam" means; I do not cite phrases I do not understand. I cite it not to argue for blind faith, but rather to counteract your statement that "human reason left to its own ways is not merely inadequate to arrive at full theological knowledge but in some sense antithetical or hostile to faith." When I quote from Anselm, I was saying that the Christian tradition teaches that one believes first, before one reasons. "I believe so that I may understand." In other words, belief is prior to reasoning. Faith is prior to reason and therefore naked reason by itself must necessarily go astray. That is what you have said ("human reason left to its own way"), and the Christian tradition has basically said, "No naked reason." In fact, the opposition to Cartesianism from the Reformed Scholastics should show that reason left to itself is in fact hostile to the faith.

I don't know if you spoke about appearance of age, or if I have overlooked it in your book. Rest assured I think most of those arguments are dumb; I do not subscribe to appearances except for the bodies of Adam and Eve, the vegetation of the world and Eden, and its rivers.

As for scientific evidences, I do wish you could deal with them, because there are many facts that are a problem for deep time, including from Genetics (e.g. Dr. John C. Sanford's book Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome).

I apologize for any offence I have cause, and I do welcome your feedback. Contrary to your book, I am not a creationist that is afraid of the facts. Not only am I not against having a meal with people like you, but I do not mind having a meal with Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Atheists etc. That is why I especially do not like your general condemnation of creationists, because it is so manifestly unfair to most creationists, many of whom are not the loud Fundy kind, of which it can be said that empty vessels make the most noise.

PuritanReformed said...

Just saw the appearance issue when I looked again. I will address it in time