Christianity Culture and Society deconstruct-reconstruct The Elephant on Mount Fuji

Google Maps versus the Pacific Ocean

What does believing in three impossible things before breakfast have to do with the transformative possibilities of a life in touch with that base reality we call God? What does Google Maps have to do with the Pacific Ocean? And can can Astronaut Mark Watney help?

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

Acts 15:28

Christianity is often understood to mean believing in a whole lot of things. You have to believe in God (whatever that means); that Jesus is God’s son (whatever that could possibly mean); in some inscrutable idea which seems to claim that God is both three and one (which defies any sort of logic you can put your mind to.) And on, and on, and on. Enough to crush the life out of you, enough to bury you in a stifling, life-denying orthodoxy designed to kill the critical mind and turn out an endless supply of muggles dressed in a sort of beige smart casual.

One of the underlying questions (one of a bunch, but you have to start somewhere) is a version of the question of what it means to know anything at all. What does it mean to “believe” in God? And what does community have to do with it? Technically, this is known as epistemology (episteme means knowledge in Greek, logos means something like “thinking /speaking/reasoning about” so epistemology is something like a theory of knowledge.)

This might seem like an odd juxtaposition to you, depending on your background. You might be tempted to respond with something like: what I believe is a matter for me alone, not for some external arbiters of truth to declare to me. Community sounds all very well, but, in fact, doesn’t it lead to exactly the sort of stifling orthodoxy that I literally just said I didn’t want anything to do with? Bear with me, and I will explain.

There is a history to this idea that we should throw off the shackles of superstition and dare to know for ourselves. It’s a long story (and you should definitely have a crack at Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age) but the tl;dr version is this: our common-sense idea of the sort of thing reality is comes from a particular history. It isn’t shared across cultures, so, if you were to embed yourself in a very different culture, you would find that a lot of what seems like common sense to you is a surprising, and often unattractive, idea to your new friends. Taylor’s term for this is a “social imaginary” – it’s the sphere of what is thinkable, and, more interestingly, un-thinkable (in the sense of both being shocking, but also just wouldn’t occur to people in the ordinary run of things.)

Which is to say: we are part of a story.

We can pick up our story in the eighteenth century, during a philosophical period known as “the Enlightenment.” I probably won’t amaze you to learn that it was the Enlightenment philosophers themselves who coined the term. It encapsulates exactly that feeling of escaping from the “dark ages”[1] with all its priestcraft and oppression into a brand new dawn of Reason and Freedom. Emmanuel Kant, probably the best known philosopher from that period had summed it up with a great catchphrase. Sapere aude. It’s Latin (part of that escape from the superstitious Middle Ages vibe by harking back to a supposedly more enlightened past.[2]) “Sapere” means something like know, but could also be rendered “be wise” or “think”, and “aude” is something like audacious. Be audacious enough to be wise! Dare to know for yourself! Think for yourself! All those things.

Don’t be content with hand-me-down knowledge, don’t buy it off the shelf. Just because it’s written in a so-called “holy” book, doesn’t make it true. Don’t just trust authority.

This plugs into a broader current in Western though about knowledge, beginning with Socrates.[3] How can you be sure of what you know? It’s like in The Matrix[4] presented a world, not unlike our own (except with those cool flip phones from the nineties). Our hero, Neo, lived and worked and partied with no suspicion that, actually, the whole thing was a giant simulation. How do you know that that isn’t the case? How do you know you’re not a brain in a vat? That’s essentially what Descartes wondered[5], and came up with the famous dictum: I think therefore I am. I can be sure that I exist, but I can’t be sure anything else does. But that’s a place to start at least.

Anyway, a lot could be said about that[6] but let’s focus it a bit.

The most reliable sort of knowledge, in the opinion of many people in our culture, is scientific knowledge. I’m writing this in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown, and it has highlighted the importance of science dramatically. We’re all hoping for a cure, a vaccine… something. And there are a lot of theories around, and a lot of money being spent. A lot of people are committing a lot of time to find a solution. And all of them know that whatever their particular approach is – it may, or may not work.  There’s no way to tell unless, in the immortal words of astronaut Mark Watney, you “science the shit out of this.”[7]

Here’s a way forward, from Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polanyi, taken from his book Tacit Knowledge.[8]

Scientists believe a lot of things about the universe, where “belief” means scientists accepting a theory as true in order to science with it. However, the history of science shows us that science is always discovering new things, which overturn the beliefs of current generations of scientists and replace them with new beliefs. Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm theory is a striking example of this, but it must happen all the time in bigger and smaller ways.

So, scientists (a) believe all sorts of things to be true, (b) believe that at least some of them will prove to be false and (c) have no way to tell ahead of time (i.e. without doing the science and disproving them) which is which.

So, given that, what do scientists actually put their trust in? What actually is science if it isn’t precisely the theories that science proposes (because they change all the time)? It is, Polanyi suggests, actually something more like a community gathered around a common goal:  the community of scientists, who hold each other accountable to an orientation towards truth. For instance, that’s what is going on with the idea of a peer-reviewed paper. The reviewers are holding the authors accountable in their shared endeavour.[9]

So this is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with our initial problem about the whole “believe three impossible things before breakfast” thing? We need to step back a little, but stay with me – it will come together by the end.

Consider your own spiritual experiences, both good and bad. Staring out at the night sky, rejoicing at the birth of a child, feeling profoundly grateful, or alternatively being broken on the wheel of life, coming to the sickening discovery that everything you had relied on in life has suddenly vanished, the everything  which sustained you suddenly as unreliable as the batteries in an old iPhone. Powerful, transformative experiences which abruptly show you that your way of living doesn’t cut it anymore. They are deeply human experiences which bounce you out of your rut, and show you something real about life.

Turning from this deep immersion in reality to dry as dust talk about “doctrines” is like the difference between typing “Pacific Ocean” into Google Maps and standing on a surf beach on a stormy day and watching the waves come pounding in, exhilarating and terrifying largely depending on your relative positions.

But the thing about Google Maps is that it is very, very useful if you want to get somewhere. The map is made up of many, many, many observations taken over years and years and years – right up to the most up-to-date gps technology. Your smartphone is not the ocean. But it is very useful if you want to get to the beach.

The “doctrines” are an attempt to do precisely that. They are the distilled experience and reflection of many, many people over years and years and years. They have something to teach us, if we will only listen.

When I was an undergraduate, I took up fencing, probably as a result of reading too much Tolkien in my youth. I wanted to hit people with swords. However, in my very first go (“bout” in the jargon), I was immediately annihilated by someone much, much more knowledgeable than me. I was pretty quick, but I had no idea how to even keep my weight centred on my feet, let alone how to touch the little bead on the end of my foil to the chest of my opponent. There was a whole skill, a discipline, waiting to be learned. How to walk so that your weight was always poised, ready to move forward or back at a second’s notice without toppling over. How to hold my foil, how to parry, riposte, lunge (again without falling over) and all the other elements of the art of defense. I wasn’t terribly good at it, but I learned enough to discover that in order to get any good at it, I would need to immerse myself in it, in order to learn what it had to teach me.

Consider your own academic studies and professional formation. If you are anything like me, you started thinking you knew plenty – and pretty rapidly discovered that you didn’t really know anything at all (and probably that a lot of what you thought you knew was wrong.) You probably already know that there is a scientific term for this: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

So here’s the rub. People have devoted their whole lives to studying Scripture, praying, living in community, reflecting on their experience, and holding one another accountable to truth. If you wanted to learn a martial art or yoga or how to meditate, you would listen to people who had devoted their whole lives to the pursuit wouldn’t you? They have put the most in: they will get the most out. Similarly, with Christianity (or any other faith) surely it would make sense to devote some reasonable proportion of your time to actually investigating it – and doing so not by disproving the laughable straw-men held up by Richard Dawkins and his ilk, but really serious thinkers, ones you have to extend yourself to understand? Christian doctrines are often counter-intuitive. But then again, when you discovered that, according to physics, what seems like solid matter is mainly empty space, that also seemed pretty counter-intuitive didn’t it? And what about quantum physics? I know virtually nothing about it, except to know that it, too, is weird and counter-intuitive.

“Doctrine” is a hard word, but it means something like “it seems.” Just like the very early disciples in the story from Acts at the beginning of the chapter, those mysterious claims are the Christian community’s ongoing attempt to figure out how to talk about the profoundly mysterious nature of human life, of who Jesus was and what he meant (and means) and of God’s ongoing action in the world. They are the Pacific waves crashing against the beach: the words about them are Google Maps; indicative at best.

And so we circle back to the scientists – I told you we’d get there eventually. Polanyi argued that scientists essentially put their faith in a community trying to science together. In faith terms, that’s what churches are. They are communities who hold one another accountable for their orientation towards the truth. “Doctrines” are our working theories, the best answers we have come up with so far. And the way to investigate the whole-of-life questions, the deep existential angst which we aren’t always quite able to ignore, is through the intelligent, questioning, but whole-hearted engagement with those communities.

To go back to my governing metaphor: if you want to climb Mount Fuji, then doctrines are kind of a map. But they aren’t the thing itself. So here’s my next question: is Christianity really about “thinking” particular things at all?

This is the third part of my series The Elephant on Mount Fuji. You can read the first one here.

[1] Historians don’t use that term anymore, because there was quite a lot going on between say the fall of Rome and the early modern period. For instance, had you ever considered that the chimney had to actually be invented by someone? It happened in the Middle Ages, along with a lot of other things which we take for granted (and / or have been superseded by better technology)

[2] Though how anyone could see those terrifying slave states as being “enlightened” is a difficult question. Consider reading Dominion by Tom Holland for more on this or this article by him in the New Statesman.

[3] Or at least Plato’s version of Socrates.

[4] Yes, I know, it’s ancient. But you’ve heard of it, right?

[5] His version had a demon providing the sense data because he hadn’t heard of computers or virtual reality.

[6] If you’re interested, you could do worse than read Roger Scruton’s History of Philosophy

[7] The Martian.

[8] I first encountered it in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, where he makes a similar point to what I’m trying to say, only he has a whole book to say it, not 2000 words.

[9] This is why the Replication Crisis is such a big deal.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

One reply on “Google Maps versus the Pacific Ocean”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s