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The same tired old arguments from the unbelievers

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 31 July 2007


There is one common mistake made by all the present day critics of Christianity and that is they have taken the fall of the medieval mind, that occurred as a result of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of natural science, to be also the fall of the Christian mind.

Certainly the medieval mind was most influenced by Christianity but it was also influenced by elements alien to it such as the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Indeed the medieval mind was such a composite that its fall was not identical to the fall of the Christian mind. Rather, what has been named the Enlightenment really marked the fall of Medieval Christianity, a particular version of the faith that could not be held when it was no longer possible for heaven and hell to be places and the materialist view of the universe had won the day.

Medieval Christianity could not exist without the supernatural just as astrology could not exist after the Copernican revolution.

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The question then becomes, can a Christianity that is more faithful to its origins exist without the supernatural? It is obvious that many biblical texts describe events that could not have happened in a materialist world. It would thus seem that our materialist understanding of the world, the products of which lie all around us in the development of science and technology, would make Christianity unthinkable. If the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ are but idle tales then surely the death knell of Christianity has rung.

Although this argument seems watertight I would argue that it is mistaken because the authors of the Bible and the early Church from whence the New Testament sprang are judged inappropriately by our post scientific revolution standards.

Part of the problem is that we are so influenced by the scientific world view that we find it difficult to imagine any other. But to understand the biblical mind we must try. Imagine a world view that did not have any concept of invisible cause. I specify “invisible” because all cultures make connections between sensible events. I see an antelope, I load an arrow in my bow, take aim and release, the arrow flies and hits the animal. Life would not make any sense without such causal trains.

What is hidden in this chain, and thus not reflected upon, is that light had to travel from the antelope to the hunter’s eye upon which a complex series of neurophysiological events would have been triggered that culminated in the aim and release. What would also have been hidden was the transfer of stored energy in the bow to the arrow and its subsequent attaining of a velocity determined by the laws of motion, and so on.

When causality consists only of a related series of events that follow one another in time and therefore are intuitively connected, there is room for different interpretations. The complex series of neurophysiological events may be put down to the activity of the soul. The appearance of the antelope may be a gift from the gods of the hunt. A drought may be interpreted as punishment for apostasy.

The biblical writers were thus not as restricted in the stories they told were they to have had our scientific understanding of causality. Present day writers who indulge in magical realism claim a similar freedom. The difference is that our magical realists know they are breaking the rules.

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It may be argued that the biblical writers who described the miracles of Jesus did not know they were breaking the rules, that they were naïve about how the world works. Or were they? Surely the point about the miracles was that they were extraordinary, that was their point. If the writers understood them as ordinary occurrences they would not have related them.

The most extraordinary event of all is the raising of Jesus and you do not have to have a deep understanding of causality to know that this does not happen, dead men stay dead.

So it was not just a matter of biblical writers having a prescientific understanding of the world and writing naïvely. More to the point, their scientific naïvety allowed them to express theological ideas by relating extraordinary events. Certainly, we would protest the truth of such events. Men do not walk on water on a stormy night. No amount of rationalising will solve the problem.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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