This post is an occasional (and I feel necessary) return to the concept, fielded by Christian sociologist Peter Berger, of the difference between the “credible” and the “plausible”, sociologically speaking. I can illustrate this from my recent recollection of Bishop John Robinson’s book, Honest to God.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus is a unique event, and a unique claim, in all history. It is therefore equally credible, or incredible, at all times. Faith in it will always depend on specific factors, such as trust in the truthfulness of the witnesses and the witness of the Holy Spirit to the heart. But to Robinson, in the particular culture or subculture he inhabited (“the cathedral close of his Canterbury boyhood, of the public school and university of his youth, of the cloistered college of his training, and of the Cambridge of his earlier career”), such a claim, like the Virgin Birth, was no longer worthy even of serious consideration. Educated “modern man” simply could not countenance it, and therefore Christian teaching had to change. The book was a best-seller in the sixties because that claim seemed true to many even within the churches.
In fact, Robinson doesn’t even attempt to deal with the Resurrection specifically. As N T Wright writes, in a retrospective:
There seems to be, in fact, no theology of Revelation at all in the book, except in the most downgraded sense of natural theology (‘what people today find credible’; ‘the exhilarating and dangerous secular strivings of our day’); just as there is no theology, or even account, of Resurrection, not even an attempt to explain Easter away in a naturalistic fashion. Robinson had already suggested, in The Body, that the church itself is the real resurrection body of Jesus; perhaps his experience as a bishop had rendered this proposal problematic.
And yet, as I have noted for a number of years, whilst belief in the Resurrection may have actually diminished since then because there are fewer Christians, the possibility of its truth is greater now: “public” spirituality became more open to the supernatural through things like the New Age movement and Eastern religion, and within the churches the Charismatic movement, even when not embraced, changed the temperature to the extent that even believers of a scientistic bent – who reject any divine intervention in nature – tend to be pretty comfortable with the Resurrection. A generation or two ago, they would have been assailed by doubts that it was intellectually viable to accept it (even without reading Honest to God) – and yet before, during and afterwards, the raising of Christ remained an impossibility that God either performed, or didn’t: its credibility never changed.
The difference between the times is the difference in plausibility, and that in the end depends on the zeitgeist in ones culture to which one tends unconsciously to conform. What factors produce that zeitgeist is another matter – they could include mere fashions in ideas; they might be deliberately cultivated by pressure groups, mass propaganda and (who knows?) global conspiracies by shadowy manipulators; they certainly, as Robinson demonstrates, become perpetutated and authorised by academic conceit.
For Robinson, circulating in an academy, and in a liberally-dominated church educated in that academy, simply assumed that his kind of people were “modern man”, and that they had an incontrovertible right to define that creature. He couldn’t conceive that, for example, a recently converted teenager like me, bright enough to be on his way to Cambridge soon, might have a valid, but quite different, worldview – once I was “properly educated” I would see the error of my ways by understanding how there is no going back after the Enlightenment, and would appreciate the need to reformulate Christianity. Except that in the event I never did see that light, and Enlightenment values eventually went out of fashion. Few nowadays could read Honest to God without considering it passé.
But the change in plausibility structures has occured only in the details – the underlying principle of conforming to worldview fashion, rather than grappling with credibility itself, remains the same. That came home to me last week when the “unreformed Marxist” (as my wife’s Soviet historian cousin dubs him) Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party defeated the week before in a general election, drew a larger and more enthusiastic crowd than Foo Fighters at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival.
Now in 1970 I paid £3 of my Scientific Assistant earnings for a three-day ticket to the Isle of Wight Festival, camped in primitive conditions and enjoyed most of the best names in the music scene then, including Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Joni Mitchell, the Who… The event was famously somewhat marred by violent left wing protestors from Europe, more or less slitting the throat of the always illusory utopian vision of Woodstock. Somehow a local Evangelist was invited to speak briefly on the Sunday, and was jeered with cries of “What about freedom of speech?”
Glastonbury Festival somehow struggled on through the post-hippy years to become an annual event, and then a national institution. Bedraggled students in expensive Afghan coats, smoking expensive Afghan dope, slowly became the British Establishment, had trend-following children, got lazy and ended up paying £238 to attend, dressed in Festival Chic and arriving in their BMWs, for a few days of
variety turns cutting edge art. Needless to say many modern attenders would have scorned to slum it in the conditions of the seventies – it’s now a cultural event shown live on mainstream TV, rather than a protest against the Monkees and suits.
Statistically, thousands of this year’s punters voted Conservative the week before. But somehow, at a Rock festival, supporting Mrs May is implausible. It was always so – when I was in a blues band in the eighties, it was easy to be invited to play at events to support the Miners’ Strike. But rock benefit events for persecuted Chinese Christians, or against Baader-Meinhof terrorism, were never going to happen anywhere. Neither would they now – any more than a Conservative Prime Minister would be given equal stage-time with Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury, unless it was to throw brickbats at her. And yet, strangely, the Conservatives had won the election, more or less.
The implausibility of any other political viewpoint than the left-leaning is also true throughout academia, and therefore in the professions dependant on it for graduates. I speak here of the “moderate” UK, which ostensibly has lacked the left-right political and religious polarisation seen in the USA.
In philosophy, the excellent Roger Scruton’s academic career more or less ended decades ago when he critiqued intellectual Marxism (and more recently, left-wing European Postmodernist poseurs). In history Victoria Bates blogs on the situation she finds at Bristol University. In journalism Peter Hitchens is the man they love to hate even as a writer for the paper-they-love-to-hate (with some credible reasons), the Daily Mail. His late brother Christopher, far more rabidly left than Peter is right, somehow contrived to be treated as a mainstream, loveable rogue.
Sociology was an entrenched Marxist discipline even when I did social psychology at University (Reich and Marcuse were required reading, gratuitous anti-religious comments were routine in lectures, and history was in all seriousness divided by one lecturer into pre- and post-Woodstock). The one Christian who taught me (on Piaget) had entered the field when instigating student riots in ’68 – his conversion left him in a profession it would have been hard, or impossible, for him to enter as Charismatic believer.
Even the church follows contemporary plausibility structures. Once the Church of England was said to be “the Conservative party at prayer” (whilst Methodists all voted Liberal). But my curate friend from Oxford told me last week that “all her clergy friends” support Jeremy Corbyn. All of them? Why would that be, when half the clergy don’t even agree on believing the Bible? This article gives some insight.
One should be very concerned when all right-thinking people agree on the correct flavour of political thought. Politics is a matter of opinion and judgement. When it isn’t, and only one political view is acceptable to those who form opinion, it’s called “totalitarianism”.
Yet this post isn’t about politics, but about why certain kinds of politics become plausible to the point that it’s difficult to own any other kind in public. One reason opinion polls on both sides of the Atlantic have been spectacularly wrong is because of internalised shame about certain political opinions – you’ll vote for them (until the option is taken from you), but won’t even admit it to yourself, let alone to a pollster.
Plausibility affects ethics too, for much the same reasons. The leader of Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, an Evangelical, was so pressed on his views about same-sex marriage during the election that he has had to stand down. Ostensibly press (and social media) harrassment was a distraction from his policies, as he would never wish to impose his religious views on others, he said.
In practice, it demonstrated that traditional views on marriage, held universally and from time immemorial round the world until a few years ago, may no longer be even held privately in the mainstream political arena – let alone be publicly represented at the ballot-box – thus effectively disenfranchising traditional Christians both Catholic and Protestant. Remember that hardly any British denominations have, so far, supported same-sex marriage: but political silencing is already making that stance even less plausible, which is of course the aim of the strategy – I learned from the New Left at university (not least from my reformed Piaget tutor) that manipulating power was far more important to them than seeking truth, even when they were talking about power as oppression .
All this political discussion was really working up to a subject closer to our usual fare: the active involvement of God in natural events. Historically speaking, this virtually defined theism, and was axiomatic to all orthodox streams of Christianity from New Testament times on until the Enlightenment (remember the Enlightenment? That was what showed that modern man cannot believe in the Virgin Birth or bodily resurrection).
Wright’s critique of Robinson describes well how this aversion to God in nature entered our “plausibility structures”:
[The Enlightenment Revolution cut] God loose from the world, drawing on the old upstairs/downstairs world of English deism. Religion became the thing that people did with their solitude, a private, inner activity, a secret way of gaining access to the divine rather than either an invocation of the God within nature or a celebration of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. God became an absentee landlord who allowed the tenants pretty much free rein to explore and run the house the way they wanted, provided they checked in with him from time to time to pay the rent (in much middle Anglican worship until the last generation, taking up the collection has been the most overtly sacramental act) and reinforce some basic ground rules (the Ten Commandments, prominently displayed on church walls, and the expectation that bishops and clergy will ‘give a moral lead’ to society). As we know, the absentee landlord quite quickly became an absentee…
Nowadays, despite the demise of Modernism, it’s hard to admit in polite company a belief that God controls nature. One may demonstrate it clearly from Scripture or Church History, and watch people’s eyes glaze over. Amongst theistic evolutionists, that’s closely tied to the metaphysics-lite Enlightenment view of science, which divides the world into natural causes independent of God and (maybe, or maybe not) supernatural miracles which usually happen only in the Flannelgraph-Bible world. It’s a massive error, based on a false (and intellectually discredited) metaphysics, and it turns the God who reveals himself through every single event in the world into the God who hides himself so well that he leaves no gaps in “natural causes” to hide in.
Critic Wayne Rossiter may not be far wrong in dividing most TEs into three classes:
(1) Some massively compromise Christian theology, so that it might fit snugly round evolution, (2) Others create artifical firewalls between their scientific and theological beliefs, so that they cannot harm one another, (3) Still others hide God in the distant and undetectable cosmic background, and claim that he is somehow pulling the puppet strings on every subatomic particle in the universe (and that things only look random).
To a depressingly high proportion, “design” is a dirty word, together with the slightest suggestion that any particular feature of nature demonstrates God’s power and wisdom, because these are excluded, somehow, by the existence of “natural causes”. It never seems to occur to people that “natural causes” are entirely a culturally-conditioned human construct – and being internally incoherent (for how can they exist or operate apart from God’s will?), actually low in credibility. The real reason there are no gaps for a God of the Gaps to fill is because God is all in all, not because he has hidden or absented himself.
But in truth alternatives to theistic evolution are often as reticent on this biblically-fundamental idea as those wedded to “soft scientism”. Intelligent Design tends, at least to some degree, to divide events in nature between design and “natural causes” (though in part this is a methodological distinction, as it may sometimes be in theistic evolution, and it’s not true of many leading ID people, who have as high a view of providence as a small minority of TEs). And the same is true of Creationists, who willy-nilly find themselves caught in the current plausibility-structures that neglect God’s ongoing activity in nature, even as they stress it in the initial creation, largely because they have imbibed the idea that nature itself is fallen, and that God’s involvement would therefore be tantamount to commissioning evil.
The point to make is that, given Christian faith, there is much in Bible and historical doctrine that resoundingly affirms God’s ongoing control of nature, and nothing in science, apart from some customarily associated metaphysical assumptions, that can deny it. To the Christian it ought to be perfectly credible – but to the human product of modern society and a modern education, it remains implausible.
Just as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection were to ‘man come of age’ back in 1963.