Faith seeking understanding – and usually having to wait

One of the mysteries of the Christian faith is how doubt-raising issues can be seen, historically, often to take generations to solve – and yet solved they eventually are, usually just at the right time. There’s some teaching about providence in that, I think. I believe many knotty issues in the two century old origins question are of that nature, apparently permanent impasses between the Bible and developing science later becoming resolvable through discoveries about both. Many answers that just weren’t available when I asked questions in my youth have become so in my dotage. Rewards come to those who wait, and who don’t give way to fear. This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints!

But origins are still shrouded by controversy, so though they are close to the heart of The Hump’s remit, other examples may be clearer in showing what I mean.

One such example would be archaeology and ancient history. The Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered in the nineteenth century, and the biblical Flood story apparently shown to be “nothing but a borrowed fairy story”. Only, as time went by, it got more interesting: Gilgamesh had borrowed the Flood from a pretty consistent Mesopotamian proto-history, plausibly linked to real events. Maybe, it turned out, the Bible is saying something deeper than we thought about real history, rather than stitching together hypothetical folk-documents like J and E. The new discoveries might even refine our understanding of God’s teaching in Genesis.

Similarly (and more recently) the united monarchy of Israel was said to be fictional because no traces of it had been found either in artifacts or inscriptions. Then David’s name turned up in several places, and the archaeological evidence has had to be re-examined (whilst those who said “But the Bible emphasises the existence of David” were vindicated). Yet the historical David so revealed tunes our understanding of his theological role – a net gain for faith.

So doubt raised by modern knowledge should always be reminded of the recurrent pattern of history: that time resolves it, leaving room for different doubts. Yet faith, too, should always remember that such resolution may require the re-evaluation of its content. It’s not damaged in the process, painful though it is, but potentially refined.

For another example, we have long passed the sell-by date of Enlightenment rationalism, and (as a society) are well into Postmodernism in thought. But long before that, in science Quantum Theory and Relativity killed the scientific determinism that had seemed to make many historical Christian doctrines just plain impossible for “any educated person” to believe for a couple of centuries. I remember when the “mainstream” academic teaching was that “things can never be the same after the Enlightenment” – so belief in miracles or the Resurrection had to be repackaged in psychological terms or alienate “the modern man”. Yet in some ways we did go back on the Enlightenment as its flawed foundations were uncovered, and where we did not, we began to move beyond it: the modern man became a dinosaur after all, despite his belief in the superiority of all things new. (My “we” here is sociological – I was always too naive to understand what the imperative was to be a modern man in the first place.)

But for those generations caught in the cognitive dissonance between what they were taught at school or University, and what they knew by faith, the options were to buy into the spirit of the age and abandon faith; or to try to insulate themselves altogether from the present in ghettoes of closed tradition, anti-intellectual fundamentalism etc; or to live in hope that the contradictions would, eventually, be resolved somehow and faith vindicated.

In practice, under those circumstances many of us steer a course between all three. For every person who lost their faith because they bought into the Humean error that miracles are impossible, there were many faithful believers who for a time became more sympathetic to “natural” explanations, less happy to discuss miracles, and certainly unwilling to interpret present events as signs of God’s active involvement in the world. A few decades later, it’s no longer such a big problem.

Likewise whilst unbelieving academics dismissed anything in the Bible that didn’t follow linear reasoning as “primitive superstition”, believers unconsciously did the same by interpreting non-linear ideas (such as apocalyptic) literally. There are now movements towards resolving that in both camps (and the danger then becomes that of lurching into the quagmire of postmodern deconstructionism – if a text makes sense, it’s because it’s oppressing some minority!).

Comparably, almost the only possible response for the believer unable to resolve the apparent impossibility of miracles (in the intellectual system they inhabited) with the testimony of Scripture about them was to say, stubbornly, “Well, come what may the Bible says it, so I believe it.” There is a time and place for that. Being out of step with some of ones cultural assumptions, in the end, is an inevitable part of being a Christian – and it always looks irrational, because ruling paradigms always seem the only rational option until they’re swept away by history. But notwithstanding, we are called to minister to the needs of this culture, not some ideal one of the past or future, or we must cease to be salt and light and instead, like the Jewish nation of Jesus’s time in his estimation, become fuel to the problem.

That very last point is the one I had first intended to write about, since I want to explore what Jesus’s most significant prophecy, that which vindicated his ministry, can teach us about the more general matter of divine interaction with his world. But the post has gone in a somewhat different direction, that of an encouragement to meet the spirit of our age (whatever it is) neither with conformity, nor with armed rebellion, but with patient hope that trust in Christ and his truth will be vindicated.

Oddly enough, such advice is close to what Jesus’s prophecy was about, and the points I’ve made, I hope, will provide a background and introduction to my main argument, which I’ll put in the next post.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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