Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Critical Pruning

My last posts have been somewhat critical of Intelligent Design (ID), and it occured to me that the value of this approach may not be readily apparent to everyone. So before I continue my criticism, I will explain.

The reasons for criticism fall into two categories: internal and external.

Believers need to be sure what they might believe is actually true.

We aren't Christians because we claim to know everything, but because we know we are limited and that we cannot overcome our limitations unaided. If we are truly friends of Truth, then we should have no fear of any truth; as Milton wisely wrote "Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?" (Aereopagitica, 1664). But we should we careful what we believe. As the saying goes, "The devil cedes nine truths to feed us a single lie."1 Critical examination can save us from unknowingly imbibing the falsehoods of the age along with its truths.

Moreover, what does our credulousity say to others? St. Augustine wrote in The Literal Meaning of Genesis:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion." 2

More important than the things we say is the spirit in which we say them. Our attitudes bespeak our beliefs more loudly than our words. As St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said: "Always preach the gospel, if necessary use words." Those who are truly open to Truth will recognize us. We leave it to our antagonists to rely on falsehood.

I resume my critique of universal ID next.

Socrates reportedly said after being convicted of "corrupting the young" by showing them their own limitations:

Still I have a favor to ask of [my accusers]. When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing,—then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.3


1. Cf. "Even a liar tells a hundred truths to one lie; he has to to make the lie good for anything." (H.W. Beecher, Proverbs from a Plymouth Pulpit, 1870).

2. Aurelius Augustinus, De Genesi ad litteram v.12 in Ancient Christian Writers v.41, trans. J. H. Taylor, (Newman Press, 1982). This excerpt from here. Cf. 1 Timothy 1.7.

3. Plato, Apology


Martin LaBar said...

Good post. Are you sure that the link in Note 2 goes to the right place?

Lawrence Gage said...

Hi Martin,

Thanks for the note and compliment!

I just tried the link; it loads slowly, but it does work. In case you're still having trouble with it, try this one:


The link is to a longer article on a new translation of that work of Augustine's. I haven't had time to read it, but it looks good.

Thanks for reading!


Lawrence Gage said...

One of the provocative conclusions of the review by Davis A. Young:

It is historically inaccurate to maintain that modern science alone forced the church to come up with ideas about Genesis 1-3 that differ from the allegedly traditional views. Many of Augustine's interpretations are plainly at variance with what are commonly perceived in evangelicalism as traditional views of Genesis. And, I might add, he was never accused of heresy for his views. It is plain that we cannot accuse Augustine of departing from the plain meaning of Scripture in order to make peace with science as we know it. Obviously, Augustine was not looking over his shoulder at scientific geology or paleontology. It is therefore all the more remarkable and significant that he adopts positions generally not perceived as the traditional church positions.


David M. Smith said...

Hi MJ,

I absolutely love this post and the idea it expresses. My senses is that there are many beliefs, both Christian and non-Christian, that wither under scrutiny. The proponents of bad ideas seem go on forever though. Thank you for being a critic. I wish more bloggers and people in general would deconstruct arguments the way you do.