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Why We Oughta Be a Bit More Humble About What We “Know”

26 March 2011

Occasionally I go to a feedyard and measure dust concentrations, wind speed/direction, solar radiation, humidity, and a couple other things, all of which gives me a chance to estimate the rate at which the feedyard is emitting dust. I bring all those data back to the office, load ‘em into my computer, and run them through a model that relates what I measured – the dust concentrations and weather data – to the feedyard’s emission rate. Let’s say, for example, that on one particular day, this whole enterprise yields an emission rate of 100.

Is 100 “true?”

Well, probably not, not in any strict sense, anyway. Every single quantity I measured, in fact, was only approximately accurate, and even then, much of what I measured is based on some arbitrary standard that someone set somewhere. (For example, just this week we learned that the little cylinder of metal alloy that the National Institute of Standards and Technology keeps in an air-tight vessel somewhere in the bowels of the earth as a standard kilogram is actually losing mass over time.) My thermometer, my wind vane, my anemometer, and my dust monitors all measure those quantities in an approximate sense. Every temperature I measure is an estimate of the “actual” temperature, whatever that means.

These measurements are analogous to our biblical text. We “know” what “Paul” “said,” but we are less certain what “Paul” “meant.” Some of what is attributed to Paul appears to have been inserted by a later editor; but even if we’re not prepared to concede that piont, we can say with some assurance that we do not have access to what “Paul” actually wrote…after all, most of our raw material is dated (by scientific procedures whose methods are also subject to error) no earlier than the second or third century CE, a couple hundred years after “Paul” lived, according to “Luke.” The same is true of all of the biblical authors, to a lesser or greater degree. That does not mean, of course, that we cannot know anything; it just means that if we are wise, we will admit that our data are only estimates of the real quantities we’re interested in. Our certainty is not 100% in any case.

Back to feedyard dust. I now take my data and run them through my model, a mathematical model I’ve built to predict how a given emission rate at point A translates to a dust concentration at point B somewhere downwind. That model, itself, requires a great deal of sophisticated approximation at many levels, and it involves all of the quantities I “measured” in the first step. All those measurements were estimates, as we saw, which means they’ve all got some errors associated with them. But then, so does my model; the math I use to translate emission rate to downwind concentration is an approximation of the underlying reality, a reality so complex that I’ve had to make a series of enormously consequential assumptions just to come up with an equation simple enough that I can actually solve it. So I’m running a bunch of error-prone estimates through an error-prone model to generate the estimate I’m really interested in. Result: after I compute how all those many uncertainties add up and make their ways through my model, my “100″ is actually “100 plus or minus 84.”

That model I’m talking about is analogous to our individual world views, which we build from our perceptions of reality, refine with our capacity to reason, and use with our somewhat stunted ability to interpret what our model spits out. I, for example, do not have the range of experience that an individual woman has to process and understand events that (say) brought her female-ness to the surface as a primary piece of data in some local context. So my model for understanding a particular event at her church is inevitably going to yield a different conclusion than HER model would yield under otherwise similar conditions.

All of this, again, is not to say we cannot know anything. It just means we need to be attentive always to the uncertainties that lurk in every move we make. qb will always balance his checkbook on the basis that 2+2=4 and 4-2=2; the uncertainties there are almost imperceptible. On the other hand, qb will tread lightly on the insistence that women should cover their heads whenever they enter the “church building,” because there are a lot of moving parts in the machinery that yields such a doctrine, many of which are subject to individual uncertainties, and all of which work together in a model structure that itself is fraught with uncertainty, bias, all kinds of error.

Look, maybe we can boil it down to this: the more uncertainty there is in each of the data pionts we use, and the more moving parts there are in an argument that links those data pionts together in a narrative model, the humbler we ought to be about the conclusions we reach through that narrative. So when some so-and-so spouts off about how self-evident it is that “genders” have self-evident “roles” within the “New Testament church,” I…chuckle a bit.

Yes, I know about Genesis 1:26; and yes, I know about Paul’s epistles. I’ve studied and pondered all of it. It’s just that a lot of uncertainty lies behind each of those data pionts, whether we acknowledge it publicly or not. I’ve also backed up from the Scriptures and tried to consider what sort of model is implied by the macro-scale trajectories that we observe in the canon as a whole, and I can’t ignore those, either, as trends that might need to be factored into my model for understanding how Genesis 1:26 and Paul’s epistles fit together.

Now: Fire away.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Still Listening permalink
    27 March 2011 3:15 am

    You suggested in an earlier post that we won’t be able to have clear, honest discussion without being transparent about our a priori biases. So let me tell you where I sit (for the moment).

    I grew up in the Churches of Christ, but I have come to the conclusion in recent months that I no longer believe. I have not come to this place in my life lightly; I am the son of a preacher, and for a time I considered becoming a preacher myself (long enough to have taken NT Greek as my undergraduate language requirement).

    Though I look at the questions that you raise about inspiration from a current perspective of unbelief, I find that I continue to be very interested in this conversation. I cannot tell whether this interest comes from habit (45 years as a Christian), a fascination with a fellowship that I still love in many ways, or perhaps from a small hope that I’ll hear a perspective that might lead me back to belief.

    When I was first learning to take my faith seriously as a teenager, I spent a year reading the entire bible – cover to cover (not for the last time). You probably already know what surprises awaited me (you’re welcome to skim the next two paragraphs).

    Right at the outset, two conflicting creation stories; a strange reference to sons of God marrying daughters of humans; a long set of exacting commandments (far more than ten), including a series that required cruel death-by-stoning punishments; tales of wars in which God’s chosen people were commanded to wipe out entire tribes or nations, men, women, and children (and one case in which only unmarried girls were taken captive – to what purpose?); generations of first one, then two Judaic kingdoms, punished repeatedly by God for unfaithfulness; psalmists and prophets who often call for the barbaric destruction of their enemies and their enemies’ children (even babies, in one passage).

    The New Testament was refreshing by contrast, of course. But I couldn’t help but notice that most of Matthew’s fulfillment references in the Old Testament (which I dutifully found and read in context) seemed unrelated to a Messiah. The stories of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and genealogies conflicted greatly while at the same time, many verses in Matthew, Mark, and Luke were clearly copied from each other (or some other source) verbatim. Much of what I read in the epistles was already familiar to me from church studies I had grown up with; but I felt alienated every time Paul discussed speaking in tongues or prophesying or healing (gifts I’d been brought up to distrust in the modern world). Then I finally came to Revelation, and a strange new description of Jesus with a sword in his mouth and fire in his eyes. Reading Revelation was like flipping many pages back to Ezekiel and the other prophets; but it was unnerving to think of the loving Jesus in the terms of these strange and harsh OT style prophesies.

    Now, of course, the bible is much, much more than the “problem” passages I mention above. These were only the “surprises”, the unexpected eye-opening quandaries that first made me question what was meant by inspiration. My dad introduced me to books and articles with all sorts of apologetics for the oddities and discrepancies in the bible, none of them exhaustive or particularly convincing. I realized early on that the scriptures we used to defend the inspiration of the bible, could never be used to defend the entire bible (and I also caught on to the circular reasoning you described in another post). So, as a teenager, I was faced with a difficult question: if I’m having trouble with biblical inspiration, what is the basis of my faith?

    Someone in an earlier post described a view that (to him) was not circular. The idea that the bible consists of individual gospel writers, each a unique witness to Jesus’ life. I think this is only convincing to someone who already believes, for a number of reasons. The verbatim use that Matthew and Luke make of Mark’s gospel doesn’t indicate unique witnesses. The conflicts between the gospel accounts are substantial. And the court analogy makes no sense to me. The NT writers are not living people in a courtroom, their “witness” has comes to us through centuries of error-ridden copying, and if they were in a courtroom, their testimony would be considered highly questionable for it’s inconsistency. Modern witnesses have to bear the burden of rationality. Living among us today are hundreds of witnesses of alien abductions, with eerily similar story details (cue twilight zone theme).

    C.S. Lewis saved and preserved my faith for most of my remaining years as a Christian. Mere Christianity and other writings gave me a way to “make sense” of my faith through something other than scripture. Mere Christianity was a huge relief – because I wanted to believe! I wanted to be a part of the network of friends and family that made up my Church of Christ world. I returned to Mere Christianity many times over the years. I read other Christian philosophers, of course, from Kierkegaard to Swinburne, but I always returned to Lewis’s simpler, “common man” approach.

    Eventually Lewis’ arguments began to break down for me as well. His idea that our moral code comes from a source outside ourselves no longer seems convincing for a variety of reasons. I’ve read enough to realize that the teachings of Jesus were not unique; Confucius gave us the golden rule 500 years earlier.

    None of this has come easily for me. I grew up with God, and I think I’m still mourning the loss of God now. Interestingly, I don’t mourn the afterlife. I don’t miss the idea of heaven, and I don’t fear hell (I don’t think I ever feared hell – a tribute to my parents). The hardest part of this loss of faith, however, has been the change in my relationship with the majority of my believing friends and family. I love them still; but love is not a reason to believe (especially since the God of scripture no longer seems particularly loving to me).

    Looking back, I think it was my questions about inspiration that lead me to where I am now. It seems clearer, now, to see the bible as the ancient writings of religious people with oral histories, mythologies, and poetry to preserve, and with their own doctrines to support.

    If I were to paint my own version of Caravaggio’s writer of Matthew, his name probably wouldn’t be Matthew, there would be no angel, and he would be thoughtfully considering whether to continue copying the words off the gospel of Mark lying one side of his desk, or to skim through the Septuagint on the other side of his desk for more prophesies that might fit (or be made to fit) Jesus.

    If it’s best that I simply not be part of this conversation, I do understand. It’s clear that you are defending faith while questioning traditional views of inspiration.

    But I’ll continue to watch the conversation, if that’s alright. I’m still listening.

    • 28 March 2011 10:01 am

      Still Listening:

      I wish there were more of a conversation here so that it would be more worthy of your time. But the poignancy of your story confirms that the conversation, such as it is, MUST have you (or those you represent) involved. Not only is it “alright,” it’s “earnestly to be desired.”

      There is much in your post worth reacting to, but just this one for now (RE: Confucius and the Golden Rule), at the risk of sounding as though I have reduced your post to this one item. (I assuredly do not.) I guess it does not surprise or dishearten me that Jesus’ sapiential wisdom is not unique. If God exists as a Creator and Sustainer of his universe – both material and moral/ethical – then it seems to follow that “all truth is God’s truth.” The scene with Pilate in which Jesus is reported to have said “I have come to bear witness to the truth” suggests to me that although a great deal of what Jesus taught differed dramatically from the established, religious order (e. g., the Halakhic revisions late in Matthew 5), much of the difference was inside, religious baseball, with all of the temporality and cultural contingency (even cultural irrelevancy!) that implies; and that Jesus would gladly appropriate practical, sapiential wisdom for daily living from whoever might have first articulated it in the service of humanity.

      In short, any God worth serving is unlikely to be a small-minded, petty, and thin-skinned God. Was it Reagan who observed that there was no end to what good could be achieved if noone cared who got the credit? That seems oddly apropos here.

      But I don’t reduce your post to that one item. I’m glad you stopped by, and I hope you’ll find both some useful ideas and some occasions to weigh in from time to time.


      • Still Listening permalink
        28 March 2011 11:19 am

        Yes, I’ve thought in these terms, myself, before.

        I’ve noted for many years the sacrificial god mythologies that pre-date Christ (Osiris, Dionysus, Prometheus, to name a few); and, as a Christian, I used to suspect that these stories were somehow a foreshadowing, a sign of man’s inherent spiritual knowledge of the need for a divine sacrifice.

        But it seems to me that thinking in these terms really requires that you presuppose the truth of the resurrection of Christ. Without that presupposition, Christ becomes just another in a long line of resurrection myths.

        I wonder, sometimes, if what I’m missing is a sense or understanding that man really does have an inherent need for a divine sacrifice. Is there something that tells us this other than circular scripture?

  2. 28 March 2011 12:18 pm

    I hope you will pardon me for observing how incredibly odd it is that you would pose THOSE TWO questions of me at precisely this time in my reading life, first about the irreducible centrality of the resurrection of Jesus, and second about man’s inherent need for a divine sacrifice.

    Perhaps we have underplayed the significance I Corinthians 15’s massive gambit, to wit: if or when the resurrection of Jesus is ever proven to be a fraud, the whole Christian enterprise comes crashing down immediately. The massivity of Paul’s gambit in that chapter recently came home to me when I opened volume three of N. T. Wright’s _Christian Origins and the Question of God_ series. Wright’s painstaking development of the argument for Jesus’ resurrection was, though obviously not absolutely conclusive, tremendously reassuring for precisely this reason: when I consider how much energy, effort, innocent blood, sweat, and tears – not to mention treasure – has been expended in the two thousand years of Christian history on the assumption that, in fact, Jesus was raised from the dead, my mind is simply not able to comprehend the scale of the waste.

    As to your last question, it’s odd because I have just yesterday completed my first trip through S. Mark Heim’s _Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross_. Heim argues that the answer to your question is an unqualified “yes,” principally because, sociologically speaking, sacrifice *works* within the scope of social benefits it is thought to confer on us. It works, so we use it; virtually every culture in the history of mankind has discovered how well it works and has exploited it for the sake of social/cultural stability. Building on the presupposition that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, Heim then shows how Easter decisively overthrows the social logic of sacrifice, while narrowing slightly the theological spectrum within which Jesus’ crucifixion plays the central role.


    • Still Listening permalink
      28 March 2011 1:30 pm

      Wright, I know. I’ll have to check out Heim’s logic of sacrifice. Thanks.

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