On Faith, Science, and Doubt – Part 2

Via Religion Dispatches, I came across a series of posts on HuffPo from Victor Udoewa. These posts explore the intersection of faith, science, and doubt. In reading them, I found myself lost in Udoewa’s convoluted and seemingly contradictory arguments. What will follow, in three parts, is my response to his posts. My responses will recap his blog posts and provide commentary. As such, I suggest you read his posts before reading mine.  It may even be worth having both open in separate tabs so that you can return to his posts if you need clarity. Part 2 will address his second post: Doubt: A Scientific and Religious Perspective. The keen eye will note that Udoewa’s posts are nearly a year old. Yup, I’m a bit late to the party. Sorry.

PART 1
PART 3

Degrees of Comfort with Doubt

In his second post, Mr. Udoewa returns to the topic of doubt for science and religion. He begins by noting that different pursuits are amenable to different levels of doubt. Science in uncomfortable with just about any level of doubt. Law is uncomfortable with reasonable doubt. As he explains, “dealing with more doubt requires faith.”

Faith by Analogy – Courage Edition

Again, Udoewa uses analogy to try and demonstrate his point. He speaks of fear. When someone does not fear an action, they have no problem performing that action. On the other hand, if they do have fear performing that action, they require courage to perform the action. Courage overcomes fear. Udoewa says that faith and doubt are analogous to courage and fear. Faith overcomes doubt like courage overcomes fear.

As we remember from Part 1, faith does not eliminate doubt. Similarly, courage is not defined as an absence of fear. Courage is that which allows us to act in the presence of fear. This means that the analogy can only hold so long as fear and doubt remain. If courage eliminates fear, the analogy with faith and doubt falls apart.

Science by Analogy

Let us consider someone with a fear of public speaking. The first time she speaks in public, she will require a lot of courage. Of course, over time and with repeated attempts, the fear of public speaking will dissipate. As one uses courage to act in the presence of fear, over time, the individual may cease having fear. Courage eliminates fear. Now, we come to a new analogy: Science eliminates doubt like courage eliminates fear.

Of course, it seems strange that courage and fear can be an analogy for both faith and science when the two pursuits treat doubt very differently. To understand the best analogy, we must consider the courage/fear relationship in this manner. Faith finds experience in the presence of persistent doubt like courage finds action in the presence of persistent fear. Science seeks knowledge to eliminate doubt like courage takes action to eliminate fear.

Let’s try this:

Faith: Doubt–>Belief and experience through faith–>Non-reduction of doubt
Science: Doubt–>Exploration and testing–>Reduction of doubt in knowledge

Faithful Courage: Fear–>action taken through courage–>Non-reduction of fear
Scientific Courage: Fear–>action taken through courage–>Reduction of fear

Courage, Fear, and Religion

Courage is like faith in so far as it allows us to act in some kind of setting (fear and doubt, respectively). However, unlike faith, courage has the added characteristic of producing actions that reduce fear. This brings me back to one of my questions from Part 1: why would we ever want to stay in doubt? Udoewa seems to suggest that, in religion, doubt confers the environment for faith. Faith confers the opportunities to experience God. Therefore, persistent doubt is the setting for experiencing God. Faith is only that which is required to have comfort in doubt.  We do not always want to keep doubt and faith around at all times. In Religion, however, we do. So, if faithful courage does not reduce fear, religious courage does not want to reduce fear. Scientific courage, on the other hand, actively pursues a reduction of fear.

If the analogies hold, as I understand Udoewa to be using his terms, Religion can be said to seek persistent doubt; while, science can be said to seek the elimination of doubt. Likewise, Religion can be said to seek persistent fear; while, science can be said to seek the elimination of fear. And please understand, I do not say this as a judgment. I am simply explaining what I understand his analogies to mean in light of his terms. It strikes me that he probably never meant this implication. However, his general vagueness makes his arguments sketchy at best and nonsensical at worst.

God and Doubt

As I’ve addressed above, Udoewa places experiencing God within an environment of doubt. He buttresses this by pointing to the Bible’s moments of “elusive revelation.” Throughout the Bible, God purposefully remains elusive. He refuses to justify himself to Job. He refuses to name himself to Moses. God, furthermore, alludes to this apparent confrontational elusiveness when he blesses Jacob and names him Israel: “wrestles with God.”

Udoewa suggests that this elusiveness of God should lead us to rethink our understanding of God. As he explains:

…God is not best rendered a noun — a defined person, place, or thing. Rather, God is a verb, an action, a blessing. We do not stand and label or name God; rather, we are named by God, just as God named Jacob.

Huh? I hate to get all 8th Grade English teacher here, but I am not sure Udoewa actually knows what he is talking about. This conjecture (that God is a verb), sounds deep or meaningful on a superficial level, but it is clearly incoherent. He says, “We are named by God.” Let’s deconstruct this sentence: We (object pronoun) are named (verb) by (preposition) God (subject noun). If God is a verb, and not a noun, why does he use God as a noun to exemplify his point? I do not mean to get this pedantic, but I sincerely question whether Udoewa actually has any concept of God as a verb. I say this because he does not, at any point in this passage (or his entire post) use God as a verb.

Setting this aside, we can now see why Udoewa views “the alleys of doubt” as the environment for experiencing God. God is actively being mysterious and elusive. This mysteriousness maintains a certain level of doubt that humans can never escape. Experiencing God happens through faith because faith is the tool used in doubt.

Comfort with Doubt and Being Fully Human

Now, one may point out that doubt is ever-present in science as well. Even when knowledge is pursued, and an answer is found, there can still be an element of doubt. Udoewa acknowledges this. In fact, he explains that being fully human means “being comfortable with the discomfort of never fully knowing, the discomfort of doubt.” This need to be comfortable in doubt goes for everyone, be they Christian, an atheist, a stage director, or a scientist.

The scientist can spend her life pursuing knowledge and realize her full humanity in acknowledging she will not know everything. Upon her deathbed, as she reflects on her life in pursuit of knowledge, she recognizes there is a vast amount of information about which she is uncertain. This has been with her all her life.  Though it has decreased, some amount of uncertainty has been present. With her final breaths, she comforts any remaining anxiety as she always has, by reminding herself, “I do not know everything and I never could. Therefore, I just don’t know.”

Presumably, this acknowledgement of not knowing and not taking a stance is faith because it is that which our scientist used to overcome her discomfort with doubt. So, faith need not compel to take a stand or hold a belief. If you doubt and disbelieve, you are a child of the Enlightenment. If you doubt and believe, when in the context of God, you are religious. If you doubt and do not take a stand, you are agnostic. The child of the Enlightenment forgoes faith in favor of not believing. The religious relies on faith to experience God. The agnostic uses faith to set the issue aside and focus elsewhere. Can a person experience God in an agnostic faith? I do not know. This is not clarified.

Truth and Knowledge for Science and Religion

Whereas Part 1 and most of Part 2 have focused on doubt’s relationship to science and religion, Udoewa now moves to looking at truth and knowledge. Actually, he uses the phrase “truth or knowledge.” For Udoewa, science seeks a different kind of truth or knowledge than religion. Science seeks “a set of propositions that describe reality.” Religion seeks truth that is “experienced, primarily, in liberation (Exodus) and transformation (new Genesis).” Supposedly, this is supposed to help clarify why doubt functions well with Christianity and not with science. As he explains:

You can have doubt about something describing reality while you experience a transformative life.

You will want to note, this statement is a proposition that describes reality. It is not a distinctly Christian statement. That one can have a transformative life in the presence of doubt is considered a statement of truth, irregardless of science or Christianity. This specific truth about reality allows him to justify his argument that Christianity is more comfortable than science in the presence of doubt. Udoewa needs scientific knowledge to lay the groundwork upon which he can explain why religious knowledge is different. Scientific knowledge, as it were, is required to instantiate religious knowledge.

God, Science, and Religion

As he draws his article to a close, Udoewa reports that he used to think “Does God exist?” was a question for both science and religion. Now, he suggests, there is another way to consider this question. He recounts a story of a woman asking a preacher if there really was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. The preacher’s response is that the answer to this question does not matter. What is important, according to the preacher, is what the snake said.

Returning to his initial question:

Likewise, ‘Does God exist?’ is a scientific question while ‘What has God said?’ is a religious question. Why? This is because you can experience God, and, in the aftermath of the event of God, still have doubts as to the source of that event.

From the section above, scientific knowledge provides the explanation for religious knowledge. So, “Does God exist?”, as a scientific question, proceeds us asking what God said. Were science to find that God does not exist, then God will have said nothing. But what of this “experience of God,” this “transformative life”? Well, it would not be God. God does not exist. However, it would still be a transformative life. You do not need God to have a transformative life. In fact, I reckon Udoewa would say all that comes with an “experience of God” can be experienced in the presence of doubt. Therefore, all that comes with an “experience of God” can happen in a world without God. They do not go away if we find no God exists. We just find that we mislabeled what allows these things.

Long story short, per Udoewa’s explanation, whatever you think you get from God (liberation, transformation, existence, morals, meaning, etc) are going to be there regardless of whether or not God exists. We know this because, according to Udoewa, we experience them without actually knowing the source. They would exist in a completely atheistic universe. QED?

Faith, Science, and Scripture

Mr. Udoewa closes his article with the following:

It reminds me of the story of a blind man who was healed by Jesus and whose parents were questioned by the chief priests and elders. Then the elders questioned him asking him to call his healer, Jesus, a sinner. The man said, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see” (John 9:25). Faith is like that.

Faith is like what? Well, the issue in doubt is whether or not Jesus is a sinner.  On this point, the once blind man takes an agnostic stance.  He says he does not know. As discussed above, this meets the standards of faith. However, the once blind man also states that he can now see.  This is not faith. Confirming that he can now see (via his now ability to use one of his five senses — i.e., Naturalistic truth per Part 1) is a proposition that describes reality.  In other words, it is science.

But, let’s unpack this further. The story recounted in chapter 9 of the Gospel of John goes like this:

Jesus, with his disciples, encounter the blind man, who has been blind since birth. The disciples ask Jesus what sin made this man blind from birth. Jesus explains no one sinned, but that his blindness was brought about to show the power of God. Jesus then spits in the dirt and mixes it to create mud. He rubs the mud on the blind man’s eyes then tells the blind man to clean the mud in a specific pool. The blind man does so and is able to see. The once blind man, then, confirms to his fellow villagers that it was the work of Jesus that led to his being able to see (John 9:1-12).

The once blind man is brought to the Pharisees, who have concerns about the story. The Pharisees note that the act was performed on the Sabbath and, therefore, doubt that Jesus is a man of God. The Pharisees question the once blind man, and he states that he thinks Jesus is a prophet.  The Pharisees, then, confirm the identity of the once blind man and continue their questioning. The once blind man states that he does not know if Jesus is a sinner but confirms that he can, now, see. The Pharisees repeat previous questions, and the once blind man asserts that he has already answered them. The Pharisees accuse the once blind man of being a disciple of Jesus and insult him. The once blind man offers his rebuttal, but the Pharisees are unswayed and toss out the once blind man (John 9:13-34).

Jesus hears of the fate of the once blind man and returns to him.  Jesus asks the once blind man if he believes in the Son of Man. The once blind man asks the identity of the Son of Man, and Jesus responds that Jesus, himself, is the Son of Man; that the once blind man is seeing and speaking to him. The once blind man states that he believes. Jesus explains that he is here to bring sight to the blind and blind those who can see. Some Pharisees present to this encounter ask if they are blind. Jesus explains that if they were blind, they would not be guilty of sin. However, if they previously claimed to see, their guilt remains (John 9:35-41).

First, let me apologize for my rather drab recounting of the events. Moving forward, Mr. Udoewa claims that faith is like this account. Faith, again, is that which allows us to overcome the discomfort of doubt. Science, again, is the departure from doubt through gaining knowledge. In this passage, Jesus performs a public miracle which he describes as being evidence of the power of God (i.e., propositions claiming to describe reality). The Pharisees doubt Jesus is the Son of Man; while, the once blind man remains agnostic. Jesus returns to the once blind man and declares to him that he, Jesus, is the Son of Man. Jesus, then, claims that guilt in sin remains for those who doubted Jesus because of what they previously saw; while, those who left that doubt and affirm seeing that Jesus is the Son of Man are free from that guilt.

In this passage, doubt is not good. In fact, it is better to leave doubt for the knowledge Jesus is providing in the form of the miracle he has performed. Remaining in doubt is cause for guilt. Moving toward knowledge is extolled. So, this is not like Faith at all. This is, in fact, like Science. Jesus is stating that the proposition that describes reality is that Jesus is the Son of Man, and freedom from the guilt of sin is knowing this.

At this point, unfortunately, I am inclined to restate my belief that Mr. Udoewa does not have a clue about what he is claiming. Or, to be more specific, I think Mr. Udoewa has, as his project, the desire to assure believers that they can still believe in God when they have doubt because they can have faith. However, his tortured attempts to explain this come across as confused and incoherent. In fact, he seems to make the claim that all the things God provides to Christians are equally available in an atheistic universe. I cannot know for sure, but I doubt this was Mr. Udoewa’s intention. Of course, I can always have faith.

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