Grand Scale Culture Wars – Part 2 of Series
In Part One of Grand Scale Culture Wars, I laid out how American/Western culture has developed serious battle lines in a big-picture “paradigm war”. This battle of worldviews feeds into our various “culture wars”.
We seem stuck with supporting either the pure naturalism of science (a matter-only universe) or the supernaturalism of religion (especially orthodox Christianity). It is particularly college students who are presented with an either-or choice about this. It’s not necessary and we all, with them, deserve better!
They face what appears to be a simple choice between opposites: a purely natural universe or a natural/supernatural one. As a result, many late adolescents and young adults raised in religion hit a “crisis of faith”, especially if pursuing higher education in a secular setting. From classes and the general atmosphere around them, they feel pressured to choose between these competing paradigms. (Paradigms can be said to be ways of viewing the world, organizing knowledge and finding guidance). Often at stake, along with this, is the respect of people who utilize them.
For more secular youth, things may run the other direction. They are exposed to religious friends and organizations which may appeal to an emerging need to “believe in something” or to find higher meaning. Perhaps they need to be rescued from a trap of despair involving depression or substance abuse. Along the way, they may have a conversion experience. Or they may, more moderately, come to align with a religious campus group or a church due to sensing that the pure naturalism and strict secularism of “the university” or general culture is not the whole picture. But “getting religion” doesn’t realistically resolve things. They are still on a near-sizzling hot seat.
You can’t win either way??
Both the “switchers” and those holding loyal to their roots find themselves in uncomfortable, sometimes confusing situations. Their studies, perhaps their budding careers seem to confirm a materialistic universe. There is pressure from peers and professors. But their spiritual side (even if they’re not religiously aligned) often screams back that there must be more. Sadly, there are few settings where pursuing this dynamic within a community does not put them in direct opposition to science and the humanities. (At least implicitly if not explicitly.)
Ken Wilber, a popular interdisciplinary scholar of “Integral Theory” calls the choice for students brutal. He describes their situation (not unlike that of others) this way: The good three-quarters of US college students who are spiritual on some level “… cannot discuss their faith with their professors… who ridicule it; yet they are no longer really comfortable with the mythic and ethnocentric version of [the fundamentalist] religion held by many of their friends.” Their “… brutal choice: continue to believe in the amber-stage of spiritual development OR renounce their faith.” [Integral Spirituality, p. 182, emphasis his.] (“Amber” stage Wilber says operates on “rule/role mind” and is “absolutistic”.) Of course, such students can play out other options but they seldom have support or any guidance whatsoever to do so.
As I’ve implied, a very similar problem exists on both sides. Wilber’s comment on ridicule points it out for the “science” or purportedly “liberal” side. The problem is rigid and reductionist (oversimplified) thinking. Little imagination. Little attempt to synthesize something using concepts from both sides. And of course, ridicule tends to prompt reaction. The ensuing charge and counter-charge interaction seldom sheds a brighter light on the underlying big-picture issues.
Why not seek to build upon truths that both religion and science have discovered over the centuries and continue to in “real time”? A person (or organization, etc.) needn’t participate in or endorse any religion’s dogma to do so. Wilber and some of his “Integral” partners are examples. He happens to be closer to Buddhism than to Christianity, but doesn’t advocate or oppose either of them broadly.
Only a small percentage of even progressive Christians (or Jews, Muslims, etc.) seek this kind of evolving synthesis while operating within religious organizations. It’s usually the “spiritual but not religious” who pursue the crossover points of science and religion. It’s fine by me to be “SBNR”, as I actually consider myself, though currently somewhat church-involved. But we do need paradigm-stretchers from the inside of religious organizations as well! The reach and potential impact they represent is too great to waste.
Whatever happened to shades of gray??
Now, this effort isn’t for the lazy-minded. In some respects, improved and nuanced models of reality (versions “3.0 and higher”) flow from practical common sense thinking. But creating and explaining a thorough and consistent system… one that can guide and critique both science and religion… is hard work. Happily, much of it has been done… by the likes of Ken Wilber and people in “Integral” studies as well as by people in the non-orthodox Christian Process Theology (based on the broader Process philosophy). If you are a student, either in school or pursuing lifelong learning, do you feel torn between the seeming opposites? Even if you don’t presently, you owe it to yourself and the rest of us to do some exploration.
But let’s leave aside the specifics of this for now and explore why things have been in such a state for at least the last two centuries.
Here is a nutshell summary: The supernaturalism of ancient Judaism on through to modern Christianity has heavily supported a two-tier concept of the universe. Science gradually came to challenge this view, not just around the edges but at the core. Key was the idea, only gradually built up, that measurement and understanding of “laws of the universe” would explain everything ultimately. No room or need for God. What we see or can sense directly or with instruments is all there is. (Thus the much higher percentage of atheists among scientists than in the general population.)
For general tracking, let’s date science (as a structured approach and a growing set of explanations of the universe) back to about 500 years ago. It took 2 to 3 centuries for science to almost fully split off from theology. In this period, what we call science was designated “natural philosophy”. Both it and theology came under the broader “philosophy”, and theology gradually lost its position as “queen of the sciences”. Most early scientists were churchmen (virtually no women) and often serious theologians.
Remember that the Catholic Church had a near monopoly on educational institutions coming out of the Middle Ages. This carried over for some time for Catholicism and Protestantism as the latter emerged powerfully in the 1500s. Protestant theologians, particularly in Germany and England, remained tied to churches but sought to approach study of the Bible and faith along scientific lines, or at least Enlightenment intellectual and humanistic ones.
Science comes to influence Religion, but how far?
Thus arose “historical criticism” of the Bible… very tenuously at first. Pioneered earlier by the likes of Erasmus and Spinoza, the first such significant work in relation to “historical Jesus” research was by Reimarus. It was written sometime before his death in 1768, publication purposely postponed. A friend and noted Enlightenment figure, Lessing, began publishing parts of it in 1774. Interestingly, such work led directly to that of the scientist and progressive theologian, Joseph Priestly. He in turn significantly influenced the later-life thinking of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Their correspondence in their post-presidency years discussed his work, particularly on the Gospels and Jesus.
Without going further into the history of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation or the Renaissance and Enlightenment, you probably have some sense of the power of “modern” rational analysis, humanism and the methods of science that emerged between about 1500 and 1800. If not, suffice it to say that it was beyond profound. It transformed major structures of society and the worldviews of really everyone, to varying degrees.
Given this, why is the supernaturalism (two-tier universe) of traditional Christianity so powerful? So robust… standing so long, even to this day in important respects? It has stood against not only the materialism of science but also many of its less radical conclusions such as an ancient earth. How does it effectively fight the application of scientific perspectives and insights to the updating of its theology?
Please share any thoughts you have and follow the blog for part 3 soon, which will delve into these questions.