Humanity, MN, and other boundary issues

In this essay, I argue that our orientation should be a more important focus than the precise locations of boundary lines with regard to where our eternal hope resides.  And since boundaries come up at all for discussion, it should go nearly without saying, that I’ll have my philosophical and theological hat on as I examine a landscape that subsumes science (its modern form) as one of the included territories.  My route meanders a bit to include discussion of the contrast between the materialist agenda and the Christian one.

I’ve had the sad opportunity to reflect on the mortal state of our human affairs in these last weeks, the details of which I cannot give here without the permission of the family who most directly felt the sting of loss. But it does all roll together into a growing tapestry of experience, fellowship, and faith that has no definable edges so far as I can see. As the family silently grieved over the cremains of their daughter, our niece and beloved cousin, the threads of that tapestry have spread in many directions, including our hope of reunion in Christ, known more specifically in our Christian world as the hope of resurrection.

Our final Christian hope is outrageous. And the hope to which I specifically refer here is our own bodily resurrection in the person of Christ. In fact it must be outrageous – it could not possibly beckon us toward anything worthwhile if it wasn’t.  Our ‘do-it-yourself quests’ for an immortality of sorts stretches through the ages for historical examination. The great pyramids built on the backs of thousands have been now been toned down considerably to the lesser megalithic markers and monuments that vie for ascending attention in our graveyard photocemeteries. Pyramids may have been replaced by other kinds of markers; perhaps artistic or literary legacies carved out. But even those of us compelled to be so humble as to have small markers or even no markers at all – we still strive for some legacy that we fancy we may leave behind of our own lasting footprints, written on near and dear hearts at least. But who is remembered, really? Legacies too, along with eroding stone will fade with continued time and death. Or it is so in this world in its present state at least.

So what of this outrageous final hope? What we place our ultimate hope in is a defining attribute of our faith. There are many lesser hopes, like legacies, that also would function as the closest thing we have to an ultimate hope were it not superseded by something truly outrageous. One of those, and it is a big one, is science, especially science more broadly construed as it has been historically to include our entire growing collective of human knowledge and accomplishment.

There is much hullabaloo over these last centuries over what should be considered the proper domain of our materially investigative skills — that is, current ‘science’ more strictly construed. Some would set apart the sacred and declare that to be off-limits to our mundane inquisitions and explications. But whether such boundaries are imposed on us by reality, or are just an artificially self-imposed imperatives from those who perhaps want to protect religion from something – that in itself is a focus of yet more debate. But regardless of the state or warrant of such fluid boundaries, everybody does acknowledge the stubbornly persistent presence of the unknown. It may be ever-expanding oceans of unknown calling for ever wider possibilities of exploration, or according to others it could be ever-celebrated, shrinking (but somehow never quite disappearing!) gaps. Regardless of their status, we are compelled to acknowledge that there are no signs of closure of these knowledge gaps; not in our lifetimes at least.  Indeed, ‘yawning chasms’ might be more accurately descriptive than ‘gaps’, as it turns out. But no quibbling on this is needed for my pursuit here.

You may be on either side of such outlooks, but I suggest that it is the direction you are looking when you face towards your ultimate hope that defines and determines much about who you are and which ideologies you compassfind compelling. By “direction” I mean an orientation that has one of two foci. Either it attempts to focus its highest and final hope within ourselves, and not just our singular physical selves (though for some, that might be as far as their hope reaches), but the seemingly more enduring corpus of knowledge that spans beyond our immediate communities and even cultures, into the entire human experience, a collective legacy if you will. Alternatively, for our ultimate hope we may focus on something beyond our collective selves, which necessarily remains beyond ourselves. Already some of the science enthusiasts among us cry “foul!” at a perceived imposition of some artificial boundary, thinking this will be just one more curtain that needs to be torn down – some final wizard to expose.  I propose here that this motivation — to bring something into conveniently available lights for examination — need not be viewed as threatening or even necessarily as intentionally hostile toward faith. The Christian hope, after all, if it is in such shakeable things, is in the end no better than the hopes of the materialist.  Christians are supposed to hope in something that is on the far side of a knowledge boundary – a region that is a shrinking space according to some, but a persistent space nonetheless. But I propose that our focus is wrongly placed on identifying these alleged boundary lines and rightly placed rather, on our orientation. To orient our hope inward (even collectively inward as the secular humanist does), is the entirety of the materialist program, and this highlights a contrast I would like to unpack just a bit more.

To repeat to ourselves (and on the strength of our own self-appraisal) that we are among the highest emergent forms of matter that exist in this universe –or anywhere at all for that matter, is the ultimate materialist program. Christian theists stand accused of cornering this market of arrogance –that we should fancy ourselves as uniquely endowed with the image of God, but this cannot cover over the indisputable fact that it is the materialist who has reserved the highest spot of all for humanity. The Theist, as self-important as they can sometimes be –indeed only a little lower than angels comes the  reminder, is nevertheless compelled to humbly stop before that final step and bend the knee in obeisance. The materialist refuses (for now) to recognize any such final compulsion.

Perhaps I am being unfair here? There are plenty of  nonbelievers, after all, that have impressive humility of character, plenty of willingness to look outside themselves or ourselves with reverential focus and appropriate – even admirable – humility.  Far be it from me to downplay such a good character trait that is so essential to both communal and personal health.  So then why must highest worship belong exclusively to the personable God such as some theistic religions claim to have know?  As admirable as humility is wherever it is found, the orientation of the materialistic core is still the same: humanity itself is at the apex. There is none higher. I propose that this has proven to be an indispensable center of the De-facto materialist creed.

Objections will quickly mount … “what creed?”, “who declared we are alone in the universe?”, “Isn’t all this ‘hierarchy fixation’ just a lamentable remnant of our now-antiquated religious thought habits anyway?” Some of these are more substantive objections than others, so I will spend no more than a sentence dispensing with the first. It is fairly well accepted today that all of us, whether overtly religious or not, do have a world view, and that is functionally indistinguishable from a creed except in name only.

The second objection begins to be more interesting. Wouldn’t the discovery of intelligent alien life, especially if those beings were far “advanced” over us, be a fundamental game-changer for the materialist, not to mention the Christian?  And who gets to measure or declare what or who is more “advanced”?  We do, it would seem – being the measurers that we are of all things.  This all remains hypothetical at this point, but we can and do explore what we are prepared to think of these hypothetical circumstances thanks to the celebrated and revealing explorations of science fiction.  One can’t help but notice that in [all?] the major fictitious and well-populated universes that have been conjured, other intelligent life has all been modeled after us in a crafted reflection, addressing our own concerns and issues. In other words, we create the intelligent aliens in our own image, and use them to tell our picardpointingstories. And just in case this self-focus isn’t spelled out explicitly enough, we see in many major series (e.g. Star Trek) the prominent placement of earth-humans in key leadership roles, (Douglas Adams’ galaxy being at least one notable, and gloriously-attempted exception to all this). It is telling that so many series have humanoids, if not earth-humans themselves as being among the most celebrated species.  In those where we are surpassed, it is often (but again with delightful exceptions imaginatively sprinkled in) the case that the ‘more advanced’ aliens are modeled after the more scientifically-inclined thinkers among ourselves — again, a thinly veneered declaration of hubris that is very much on message.   Beyond technology or science, though, one other way our humanity figures prominently is by having moral leadership roles, perhaps as underdogs against more advanced, but cruel tyrannies (think Star Gate SG-1).  One way or another, we manage to make our imagined lasting footprint in these well-populated universes, whether it be from scientific, technological leadership or from retention of significant moral or compassionate high ground.

What else could writers possibly imagine? We write what we know, and  presently (for the materialist) that is just … us. So I acknowledge that these ‘objections’ to science fiction works is unfair. But my point is that, on the strength of these imaginations (and some great imaginations there have been!), as well as on the strength of statements by real scientists about the real world, materialists who celebrate science do not cede much – if anything at all – away from the singularly exalted scientifically-oriented humanoid-situated mind as the unrivaled emergence of organized matter in the known universe.

The objection regarding our hierarchical fixations as perhaps being a religious hangover from bygone eras, may also be a matter of some interest. Fixation? Yes. That seems fairly apparent. We may fight it, disdain it, hold it at bay for times, even rebel or turn it on its head in many contexts (as Jesus did), but it is always still there. Religious? Well, yes, but that is a meaningless distinction for those of us who see everything as religious whether or not religious underpinnings are explicitly acknowledged or recognized; “World view”, “Creed”, “Tom-ay-to”, “Tom-ah-to”.   Bygone era?  It is not gone yet, though not for lack of some wishing it were so at least some of the time, which could leave open the question:  should such a fixation be left behind?

Here our orientation shows itself again. For the materialist facing inward toward humanity this would seem to be a more open-ended question. Why should we deem ourselves a higher life-form than a turtle or a tree? The materialist can (and does) make this choice –nearly always in our favor, but can offer nothing of substance to support why this should be. So for the materialist, there can at least be some pretension towards this being a real choice. And to the extent that it really is, it is then revealing how that choice has typically been made in our known history (by both materialists and theists): facing squarely toward humanity at the center, and most often to damningly small subsets of humanity at that. For the Theist, there is no choice regarding the existence of a hierarchy. It would be like asking if one wants to acknowledge any “up or down” aspects of the world. If the theist is right, that dimension will continue to exist, and be imposed on you whether or not you want to acknowledge its reality. The theist also is aligned on the humanist axis, but facing away toward something outside of us all. Or perhaps more accurately, the theist (along with the materialist) faces squarely toward humanity, but (unlike the materialist) looks through and beyond humanity to search for something beyond. It follows then, that for the Theist, it is especially damning that we live in open rebellion of what we claim to believe, as we so often clamor on an exclusively human-centered orientation in ways indistinguishable from materialists. But, the very act of rebellion is itself still an implicit acquiescence, if not homage, to the whole concept of hierarchy.

Seen in these lights, disputes and turf wars over scientific domains is brought into a new focus and, if I am correct, somewhat marginalized. Those oriented toward humanity at the apex cannot justify any limit (wherever one cares to place it) on what we can study.  Anything that we can even talk about, be it philosophy, religion, or politics, can be studied. Anybody who attempts to set up ‘no trespassing’ signs to protect an otherwise passable border is fearfully trying to keep something in the dark.

Those oriented toward a hope beyond and outside of humanity do not [should not] share in any fear that studies will unmask or reveal something that would rob them of their faith focus on a transcendent hope. Because anything that could be subjugated to our whims or analyses cannot possibly be the whole of that ‘other’ category on which our hopes finally rest. To think or fear so is to betray a core materialistic conviction that, held up to the light, should be disowned by any Christian. Christians who want to baptize materialistic programs, unwittingly adopt a Scientistic agenda. Whether or not creation science or intelligent design research qualify as science, they are at least aspiring to be seen in that camp. And that observation might point toward an unintended, shared agenda with the materialists — a tacit agreement with them about where our ultimate hope and authority resides.

The materialist then must be a methodological naturalist – what else could they be? They see no boundaries (except artificially erected ones) to potential human knowledge. But even the theist can be a methodological naturalist on the strength of their faith that it is impossible to know in advance where any boundaries should be, and that wherever any may be– they are imposed on us from without and would function as impenetrable walls, rendering our disputes over such demarcations as pointless.  So anything that lends itself to our scrutiny and study must, of course, have been ‘natural’ (whatever that word really means).  On this outlook, the theist can be a de facto methodological naturalist, albeit by deflating the significance of that label; and simply insist that any categories will sort themselves out, if indeed they are sortable at all — so why worry about ill-defined boundaries anyway?

That is why any Christian hope is and remains an outrageous hope – one that will never be amenable to our complete comprehension; not because we declare it so, but because that is reality.  Our faith would not be worthy of the label otherwise, and our hope is for something higher than we already have.  We hope in something (someone) that is beyond our collective selves, and who is at the same time also within our collective and even individual selves. We can accept on faith revelations about eternity without being able to specify with any clarity at all how this materially works or what it will look like mechanically. To demand such explication is to demand that we attempt to grasp our hope, and relocate back into the materialistic center where we imagine we preside. Aside from the problem of wanting to pretend that we are in control of this, such a hope would then become no hope at all.

Christians do believe a particular and very real hope walked the dusty streets with us in Palestine long ago, but if He was for this world alone (i.e. still contained within the materialist paradigm), then that present ‘hope’ would be like finding only the first rungs of a truncated ladder that really takes us nowhere away from where we already are. The hope that Christians do see, though, is that this ladder that reached down into our material world, is also our way beyond it and beyond our present selves to a transformed world in Christ that is somehow built with the materials of this world. That hope is both sufficient and necessary for all of us.

Regarding science in its more strict sense, if those who pass their workdays productively in this particular (well-defined to their liking) workspace — if they find it expedient to keep some things out of that space, that may be a subsidiary matter for their discretion entirely.  But their continued thriving functionality may turn out to be contingent on their recognition that their work-a-day world is a subset of a much larger landscape.

Regarding our wider, but still very human, very accessible world, though, whatever can be shaken will be shaken. And after that our core is left unmasked.  If we are to fearfully set up boundary guards lest some political or creedal line be trespassed, we may do well to ask ourselves where exactly we have been investing our treasure and our hearts.

“Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”
C.S. Lewis

Merv Bitikofer

About Merv Bitikofer

Merv has been a teacher at Flint Hills Christian School since 1993 and has also been active with his family in Manhattan Mennonite Church. Science and faith issues have long held his interest both personally and professionally, and he is passionate about cultivating a more robust intellect among the wider Christian community in the service of Christ.
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5 Responses to Humanity, MN, and other boundary issues

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Merv. It was worthy of two readings to begin to get the feel of where you’re going with it.

    Just to pick up a few things that set me thinking (probably peripheral to your main purpose!):

    (1) The idea of seeing through ones concern for the matters of this world, especially humanity, to God beyond is very George Herbert (A man that looks on glass/ on it may stay his eye/ or if he pleaseth through it pass/ and then the heaven espy), and is a good principle to apply to ourselves to see to what extent our lives are being pursued “Christianly”. If I’m pursuing science, or challenging the boundaries of science, or whatever (helping humanity, striving for Olympic excellence, building a blog), how does that relate to the ultimate hope? Echoing the sub-text of the piece, how does my methodological naturalism glorify God?

    (2) “So anything that lends itself to our scrutiny and study must, of course, have been ‘natural’ (whatever that word really means).

    Another deep thought, which resonates with the piece I recently linked to from a BioLogos thread, by Strawson – he’s actually a panpsychist, but that isn’t the main point, I think. He traces his ideas back to Arthur Eddington (whom we’ve discussed here), about the sheer mystery of the created order, that resists the common division into “natural/material” and “supernatural/weird”.

    Such thoughts dramatically relativise the role of methodological naturalism to a rather arbitrary petitioning off of a small field of study (I like your point that “the gaps” are infinitely larger than the islands of knowledge!). If Joshua is keen to limit the scope of science to its proper domain, then you’ve effectively put it on the same kind of scale, in the grand scheme of things, as the study of zinc chemistry or the malarial parasite – worthy and useful, but infinitely far from an understanding of the whole universe.

    (3) “Regarding science in its more strict sense, if those who pass their workdays productively in this particular (well-defined to their liking) workspace — if they find it expedient to keep some things out of that space, that may be a subsidiary matter for their discretion entirely. But their continued thriving functionality may turn out to be contingent on their recognition that their work-a-day world is a subset of a much larger landscape.”

    To use a phrase of Joshua’s, it’s easy for Christians to be “seduced by science” – which includes his points about the science-envy of ID and Creation Science, but also its root, which is the “soft scientism” one finds too often – prioritising science as the one “independent” source of knowledge. So at BioLogos, the sciency types will tend to ask reflexly if Adam, or the Flood, or design, is compatible with science, rather than whether scientific theories are compatible with revealed doctrine, as if the latter is a story, and the former a set of facts.

    Similarly in the wider world, one might ask why it should be, logically speaking, that Christian people should grant an act of God “if there is no scientific explanation”, rather than granting a “wholly natural” cause “if there is no reason, such as preceding prayer, to assume God’s providence.”

    Thanks again – and good to have a post from you!

    • Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

      Jon: “It was worthy of two readings to begin to get the feel of where you’re going with it.”

      Thanks for that kind spin, Jon. It probably required that many readings to tease out my main points from my meanderings. I don’t know if you peeked ahead at what I originally had posted as a draft — I’m a habitual editor (and even just now have added a parenthetical word or two); but even for all that, more polished essayists probably cringe at my free-association whimsies.

      Thanks for the George Herbert reference. While I don’t recall reading him directly, that quote rings a bell and I have at least read similar things — probably from Lewis. In any case I am certainly shaped by authors like those and should make the habit of referencing them explicitly more than I do. Then perhaps I’ll remember the specifics of those sources.

      I like the thought of looking both at / through a glass. I think it was Lewis that somewhere suggested in a related thought that to continually attempt to see “through” something as we try to do in science –is to then not be able to see it at all. I.e. something must finally stop our gaze if we are to actually receive any useful sense of it. I thought that was philosophically profound when applied to our cognitions and philosophizing generally. But that is tangential to Herbert’s very important point that we need to both see something *and* see through (or beyond) it as well.

      Regarding your resonance (2) with my questioning the whole category of ‘natural’ — that is me resonating with you and your recent pieces. I’ve heard it elsewhere too, but I’ve particularly appreciated your criticisms of those attempted categories.

      You wrote: “So at BioLogos, the sciency types will tend to ask reflexively if Adam, or the Flood, or design, is compatible with science, rather than whether scientific theories are compatible with revealed doctrine, as if the latter is a story, and the former a set of facts. ”

      This is a good point to consider. Is Biologos (or by extension –any of us all who have at least one or more feet in the scientific world) betraying a materialistic orientation? The critics would give a resounding ‘yes’ to that, I’m sure. I think that may be worthy of more reflection, though, because I am (for now) not convinced that some of this is without Biblically allowable (if not quite explicitly sanctioned) warrant. Biblical precedent at least? It doesn’t seem to bother Paul to appeal to some corpus of “common knowledge” of his day on issues. E.g. –everybody knows it is disgraceful for a man to have long hair … and so forth. He doesn’t even bother to situate some of his propositions with any scriptural context or backing at all (maybe he could have, but it seems more likely that he simply found it unnecessary because his audience was already there and mostly did not need convincing). But my point is, it seems like Paul and others were quite ready to appeal to ‘common knowledge’ issues to draw theological conclusions, or, dare I say, supplement scriptural exhortations. I think Jesus must have done this plenty with his parables. So while ‘sciency’ types may indeed have materialistic orientations, their appeals to science (even if it for the moment runs parallel with materialists) may not mean they are aiming for the same final destination. There really could be something to this ‘baptism’ of worldly goods.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Merv

        I guess Lewis and Herbert are using the analogy in different ways – but perhaps to similar effect. I guess Lewis was talking about what MacKay calls “nothing buttery” – like that line in one of the Narnia stories when someone is intorduced as “a star”, and Ernest (I think) says that in his world, a star is a burning ball of gas. The reply is that even in Ernest’s world, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.

        In other words Lewis is against “seing through the illusion of meaning” to some mundane mechanical explanation – whereas Herbert is about seeing through the mundane to the divine reality it represents and embodies.

        Your last para is a good corrective to what may have come across as a Fundamentalist-type “Scripture is the only true answer to every question.” In fact I was just asking people to examine whether (and why) they should unthinkingly give one of God’s “two books” more weight than the other.

        It’s less likely to happen if, as you rightly say, science (or any other matter) is seen as of limited scope not only in human affairs, but in our own lives. To be a Christian whose profession is science (or music, or teaching) is different from being a Scientist (or Musician, or Teacher) with a Christian faith.

        Thanks for the intimation that my thoughts on boundaries have been useful, anyway!

  2. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    I am relieved that Jon said he might want to read it twice. I will probably need at least three to get it all. But for some reason, after one reading, my mind jumped to a common scene during my teaching days, when students would ask me, (after a discussion of a difficult topic) “how much of that do we need to know?” My glib answer was “all of it. There is no knowledge that you do not need to know” And saying this, I now realize, was simply an admission of profound ignorance, not on their part, but on mine. I might have been talking about photosynthesis, for example, describing all we know about how it works. But that is very analagous to Jon’s quote from Lewis about the definition of a star. The fact that plants convert light energy to chemical energy and then to biological matter, is not one that is understood by describing the structure and function of chlorophyll or anything else within the MN sphere of knowledge. Your mention of chasm is appropriate here.

    And of course if we are speaking of hope, even knowledge outside of MN, isnt terribly useful. For myself, speaking as a scientist who identified first as an atheist and now as a Christian, I have also become aware of the importance of Jon’s point that hope lies in defining myself as a Christian first, who also does science, plays music, writes blogs, and sometimes thinks. The feeling that this is true often comes over me when hearing certain hymns, certain other music, contemplating some of the good things of this world, and reading the good news of Christ’s life, sacrifice and resurrection.

  3. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    I’m unconvinced that I’ve really written anything very deep here, but I’m flattered if you think it merits (or more likely, requires) extra attention.

    I don’t want this essay to be taken as a total detraction from the important business of attending to boundaries — especially as boundaries are going to be (have been) attended to with or without us. But it is at the very least in competition with all that attention, by at least suggesting strongly that orientation should be an even higher consideration.

    “how much of that do we need to know?” None of it — on my account at least. Or maybe all of it, if this turns out to be right! I remember another saying that is something to the effect that: “Life itself will be your final exam. Anything at all could be on the test.” And we Christians could add: It will be 100% of your grade (pass/fail).

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