On Faith, Science, and Doubt – Part 3


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 3 will address his third post: The Different Roles of Science and Faith. The keen eye will note that Udoewa’s posts are nearly a year old. Yup, I’m a bit late to the party. Sorry.


Of Problems and Mysteries

In the final of his three posts of which I will comment, Udoewa starts by discussing the differences between problems and mysteries. He differentiates them around how we address problems and mysteries. Problems are said to be answered by solutions and mysteries answered by resolutions. To explain further, solutions “require active work;” while, resolutions “warrant an explanation that dissipates tension.”

Problems, Mysteries, and Science

Science is viewed as attempting to address both problems and mysteries. Udoewa notes, however, that when science addresses mysteries, it can run the risk of impinging on religious territory. He uses, as an example, what he calls the mystery of “How did we get here?”. The Bible provides an answer in the story of Adam and Eve. However, since science has begun examining this mystery, the veracity of the story of Adam and Eve has been called into question.

Udoewa notes that addressing the resolutions provided by science have led to divisions among Christians. They have polarized into camps. Likewise, while there are middle-ground arguments, they are being ignored. The tension, he notes, is palpable and spills over, unnecessarily, into cries of “heretic” and firings from jobs.

A Return to Doubt

In light of these reactions, Udoewa returns to doubt. He reminds us that science seeks answers when there is doubt. Faith is different:

God is mystery and a life of faith is one that is lived in the tension of never fully knowing. We often do a disservice in our faith communities when we use a scientific approach, regarding answers, in issues of faith.

His point, in general, is that faith is supposed to be comfortable in doubt. As such, the idea of firing someone over a disagreement on a topic in doubt is an overreaction.

Truth and Sectarianism

Udoewa continues this exploration of disagreement on a topic in doubt with a quote from a Dutch church historian. The historian notes that the deep lines of sectarianism present in the Dutch church are a result of placing a high importance on truth. By truth, per Udoewa, the historian “meant dogmatic views and doctrine, or more importantly ‘my’ interpretation of scriptures.” Udoewa explains this truth as scientific truth. To quote:

Of course, this dividing truth is the factual, scientific kind of truth because the truth to which the Judeo-Christian tradition points to is not factual, scientific truth but transformative truth. In that way the truth of faith is love. So, you can be divided and confused about scientific knowledge and yet have unity based on a different kind of knowledge — love.

Udoewa makes reference to a book called “Love Wins.” I will assume that when he speaks of love, he has something specific in mind that may be made clear by reading that book. At the very least, as a non-Christian, I am willing to acknowledge that Udoewa may be using love in a manner that is Christian specific with which I am unfamiliar. As such, I will set that aside.

However, I want to return to Udoewa’s definition of scientific truth from Part 2. Scientific truth is the set of propositions that describe reality. So, when he says, “The truth to which  the Judeo-Christian tradition points to is not factual, scientific truth but transformative truth,” he is making a statement that is among the set of propositions that describe reality. He is making a claim about the state of affairs in reality. He is revealing scientific truth. So, if his statement accurately reflects what truly is the case, if it actually is a proposition that describes reality, science will need to demonstrate its truthfulness. If that has not and does not happen, the statement is false.

Finding Common Ground

Part 3 of Udoewa’s series are articles contains the strongest call to action. As touch on above, Udoewa has concerns about how Christians react when faced with sectarian and theological differences. His concern is that faith is beyond these differences. As such, he notes that faith and science do have a commonality: “what you believe is not as important as how you believe.”

For science, what is believed should come from the scientific method. In other words, scientists should believe what the evidence points to. They should not point the evidence to what they believe.

Faith is said to be similar:

A life in faith is not so much a set of beliefs. Rather, faith is the transformative experience that opens you up to belief. Faith isn’t really believing the right things, as it is more about an experience that allows your breathe and believe in the right way– a belief predicated on love.

Sectarianism and the Common Ground

Udoewa uses this described commonality between science and faith to commentate on the sectarianism within Christianity. He notes that, in science, coming to a different or unpopular conclusion does not mean you stop being a scientist. And this is an entirely understandable observation. Though Udoewa uses rather absurd examples, some of the most renowned scientists got their status because they proposed different and unpopular views that bore out in the end.

Udoewa wishes the same would be the case in matters of faith. When someone comes to a different or unpopular view because of her experience in faith, he wishes such occurrences would not be met with cries of ‘heretic’. Instead, he wants unity. A different or unpopular view should not mean one ceases to be a Christian. Instead it should be a cause to expand the possibilities of Christianity. Udoewa drives this point home with his concluding thought:

Science seeks understanding. However, faith seeks ‘wonderstanding’. I long for the days when people of faith linger in mysteries finding satisfaction not in understanding, but in the unification of ‘wonderstanding.’

Udoewa’s concluding point, I think, sheds a lot of light on what he is hoping to accomplish in his three posts. However, as my commentary over the three posts suggests, I do not think he realizes his project. What I want to do, now, is recap his internal logic to show where I think he falls short.

The Recap

Truth can be thought of as coming in three forms: Humanism — reason and logic, Naturalism — what comes from the five senses, and Mysticism — God and the Holy Spirit.

Since the Enlightenment, we have thought science as the means to get at all three forms of truth. However, science can only get at the truths of Humanism and Naturalism. Faith is the mechanism that gets us to the truths of Mysticism.

We, all of us, live in a state of uncertainty. We can call this uncertainty ‘doubt’. We come to know the truths of Humanism and Naturalism by leaving doubt through the accumulation of knowledge. This can be understood as the project of science. Faith, on the other hand, functions in the presence of doubt. The truths of Mysticism are, therefore, revealed by the experiences of faith.

Religion has, as the foundation of its project, the truths of Mysticism as revealed by faith. Religion, therefore, can be said to seek truth as science does. However, religion seeks a different kind of truth than science. Religious truth never leaves doubt; whereas, scientific truth describes reality.

This is where the project falls short. Udoewa proceeds to make comments that describe reality to justify religious experiences. As a result, religious truth becomes contingent upon scientific truth. This is best understood when he brings God into the picture.

Udoewa notes that faith has revealed the truths of liberation and transformation. He wants to says these exist and are experienced because of God. However, for this to be the case, God must exist. As he notes, “Does God exist?” is a scientific question. Which means, God can only be responsible for liberation and transformation if “God exists” is a proposition that describes reality. This does not mean liberation and transformation are not true. It only means that, when one experiences them in faith, God is not responsible, necessarily.

What results is God being rendered meaningless to truth, of all forms. God is as valuable as ‘the ether.’ He may provide an explanation for some observation, but if science finds something else is the cause, God’s value as an explanation is gone. Speaking of truth, we would likely need to redefine how we understand the truths of Mysticism. Instead of ‘God and the Holy Spirit’, perhaps we should define it as ‘the experience of faith in the presence of doubt.’

As I explained earlier, Udoewa’s concluding comments in Part 3 reveal a lot about why he went in this direction. He sees a lot of negative outcomes when religion has “acted like science.” It has led to sectarian divisions and disbelief. To salvage belief in God and maintain ecumenical unity, Udoewa has attempted to immunize religious truth from science by decoupling it from reality and hitching it to faith alone. By doing this he hopes to eradicate sectarianism. Such divisions form on issues of reality. The divisions become irrelevant to religious truth when religious truth does not reveal reality but experience. In decoupling religious truth from reality, however, he has stripped it of any descriptive power. Religious truth is forbidden from commenting on reality. So, whatever you experience in religious truth may or may not be real, and your cannot appeal to religious truth to argue for it being real.

This move is successful in making sectarian divisions irrelevant. However, it has done so by making God and religion irrelevant. I dare say, he may have done the work of the New Atheists for them.

Fixing the Problem

Despite his noble intentions, Udoewa must re-couple religious truth and reality if he wants to salvage any sense of relevance and meaning for God and religion. For religious truth to carry any power, it must be able to describe reality. As he acknowledges, this coupling brings with it serious consequences. It means sectarian divisions cannot be easily dismissed. Likewise, it means science can render scripture (at least some interpretations of scripture) and the entire religion untrue.

Retreating to pure mysticism has an understandable appeal. By foregoing any claim to knowability, the mystic can always find a way to dismiss evidence in contradiction to his beliefs. However, he does so at the price of stripping himself to any claims of truth. The beliefs of the mystic are indistinguishable from mere opinion. If I can be so bold, the Bible makes a lot of claims, but the idea that it is mere opinion does not seem to be one of them.

Externalizing the Critique

Heretofore, I have attempted to keep my critique internal to the logic and terminology used by Udoewa throughout his three posts. In the hopes that it will bring some clarity, I want to try and externalize my critique. In short, where Udoewa’s arguments fall short is that he does not allow faith to make knowledge claims.

There are things we do not understand and experiences of which we do not know the source. These are uncontroversial statements. Udoewa wants to focus in on some of these experiences. When we encounter these uncertainties, he argues that we can utilize faith. We can have faith: that God exists; that God is watching out for us; that God is [fill in the blank]. When we have such faith, we can come to certain experiences. He exemplifies them with liberation and transformation.

However, he makes a point of stating that faith does not make knowledge claims. Per Udoewa, by having faith, one is not gaining knowledge. Therefore, by stating a faith claim, one is not expressing gained knowledge. This, presumably, renders faith claims to be pure opinion. If experience in faith does not reveal knowledge, then “I have faith that God exists and liberates me from sin.” is as meaningful as “I like mint chocolate chip ice cream.” Apart from the man scooping your ice cream, why should anyone care?

If faith claims, on the other hand, are knowledge claims, then “I have faith that God exists and liberates me from sin.” can be understood to also claim something like “God exists because I have experienced God.” In this understanding, faith claims actually carry weight. They have substance and meaning. They aim to be propositions that describe reality.

Of course, they also become subject to critique and falsifiability. It may be that God does not exist and what you have experienced is not God. You’ll note, in my internal critique of Udoewa’s posts, this was the case. However, the difference is that, in Udoewa’s posts, God had nothing to do with faith, paradoxical as that may sound. “Does God exist?” was a science question, not a religious question. So, whatever you experience in faith, God is irrelevant, even if you think you experience God. What mattered was the affect of what you experienced. By making faith claims knowledge claims, God becomes relevant to faith, again. When you think you are experiencing God or the effects of having faith in God, it actually matters whether or not that is true.

In the end, for the religious truth derived from faith to be of any value, then faith claims must be considered knowledge claims as well. Yes, this means faith has to earn its in place, alongside reason and science, as an arbiter of knowledge. The alternative is irrelevance. For God (and faith in God) to matter, the faithful must admit that the factual position just may prove to be disbelief.


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