Jan. 9th, 2012

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Heard through the inimitable George Takei over at FaceBook:

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Also: hail to the Chief! J.K. Simmons, a.k.a. Assistant Chief Pope on "The Closer," marked another year on earth today.

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Mr. Simmons is one of my fave actors lately, and not just for his work beside Kira Sedgwick in one of the best procedurals on the air today. His humor has brought a light to many dark places in my life, and so I wanted to mention it.

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Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.
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Several years back (so my department's lore goes) when the philosophy and theology departments were housed in the same building, someone put up a sign. Above the official sign pointing to the philosophy department it said "Questions without Answers", and toward the theology department, "Answers without Questions." I'm fairly certain it was a philosopher who put it up, but the theologians must have had a sense of humor about it because it apparently stayed up for several years, maybe even several years.

My school is a Jesuit school, which is a rather questioning and open-minded wing of the Roman Catholic Church. Knowing the theologians that are here today, I am sure that they could laugh such a jab off because they are confident that it was a stereotype that doesn't apply to them. It doesn't; in my experience, they never met a question they didn't like, and the old joke "Two Jews, three opinions" applies to them just as well.

But I was reminded of this story when I saw a CafePress ad for a t-shirt poking fun at faith.

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Apparently, they think I'd be interested in atheist gear based on the keywords I type. Which is interesting, but not all that surprising given the truly awful directed ads I've received over the years. Anyway...

Images like this make me sad because they reflect a grain of truth. There are many people and groups that claim the label "faith-based" that apply more or less this approach. Evolution contradicts Genesis 1? Nuts to Darwin, then. The Bible says God will never again destroy the earth with a flood? That means we don't need to worry about global warming. Hermione and her lot are called witches? That alone makes Harry Potter taboo in many circles. I've seen it played out more than once, and it always makes me cringe.

But to paint all the faithful with this brush is like blaming your local Southern Baptist Church because they share their name with the Westboro crowd. To be sure, the SBC has done and said some things that make my skin crawl and that I heartily disagree with; but I prefer to blame them for their own sins (to use the churchy phrase) and not those who share their name. Similarly, I am one of the faithful but I'm not faithful like that. Nor are many people I know. Most religious people are carried on by inertia, as unreflective as the great masses of any group that achieves a certain critical mass.

But I'd say among the groups that have truly thought through the principles, at least as many of the faithful see conflicting evidence as an interesting challenge as see it as a threat. If Darwin has a good case (and I believe he really does, what I understand of evolution - I'm a philosopher, not a scientist, so my science education stops at the gen-ed level), then I need to reinterpret other things I believe to be true in a way that makes sense of that. It's the challenge by which we weed out bad interpretations and get below the surface level. To disregard the challenges posed by "new evidence" is bad stewardship of a gift from God. So I say shame on my fellow Christians (and Jews, and Muslims, and...) who don't take that challenge seriously. You're missing out.

I accept the scientific method in all its glory. Most Jesuits and Methodists (the faith traditions I'm most familiar with) do, too. What I reject - emphatically - is physicalism. That's the idea that the physical facts, the kind of things described by science, describe the sum total of reality. I am not so vain to think I can explain God or offer a proof, but I find that living with that reality is humbling, and in a good way. To think that there's something bigger than myself out there, bigger than the world. Does he wear white robes and make the thunder rumble when he laughs? Probably not. Does he answer prayers and can he prevent natural disasters? I don't know, though my first response (due to indoctrination or faith or something innate within me) is yes on both accounts, though I struggle with both, philosophically and personally.

I prefer Bilbo's approach to physicalism:

He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: it's springs were at every doorstep and every path was it's tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.

Or Sam's:

'The road goes on for ever,' said Pippin; 'but I can't without a rest. It is high time for lunch.' He sat down on the bank at the side of the road and looked away east into the haze, beyond which lay the River, and the end of the Shire in which he had spent all his life. Sam stood by him. His round eyes were wide open - for he was looking across lands he had never seen to a new horizon.

I don't mean to get preachy here, and I certainly am not trying to convince everyone to be like me. It works for me and my character, but I know the word faith conjures different images for different people given our experiences. I get that.

But please, don't tell me all "faith" looks like that picture on the right. Where there is evidence, I try to make sense of it and reformulate my beliefs so to be consistent. There I will adopt the method on the left. And where there is no evidence one way or the other, I believe what is most useful to me or try to be content with not knowing, more or less in line with William James and Blaise Pascal (who, icky Wager notwithstanding, actually had some pretty interesting ideas about the nature of faith). That doesn't mean I ignore evidence; in the cases I'm talking about, there's simply no evidence to ignore. But I still reject the idea that the world I know is the sum total of what there is. When, in the history of science, has that ever proved true?

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Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.

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