“I am looking in the form of truth stripped to the bone. Truth that lives independently of us, that exists out there in the world. Hard and unsentimental. I am ready to accept truth no matter how alarming it turns out to be. Even if it proves incompleteness and the limits of human reason. Even if it proves we are not free.”
— Janna Levin, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines”
A local pastor sent me J. Gresham Machen’s 90-year-old essay. I found nothing in his three ways to believe in God – knowledge through intellect (reason, nature, and metaphysics), conscience, and scriptural revelation – any more convincing than other apologists’ explanations. Machen set out with the goal of proving what he already believed. There’s no objectivity. Machen dismissed pantheism out of hand even though Spinoza’s God of Reason/Nature and the Cosmic Mind to which Einstein occasionally made reference as “God” or “Lord” are one and the same, taking all of reality as their divinity, our Universe being a manifestation of a Supreme Intelligence.
I’ve read “Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957)” by Canadian Jesuit theologian/philosopher Bernard Lonergan, who attempted to establish God’s existence through the logic of human reasoning, emphasizing a “detached, disinterested, unrestricted desire to know … to understand correctly,” working through mathematics, science, and common sense into metaphysics and ethics. However, in the final two chapters, Lonergan leapt to the conclusion he wanted all along to validate.
I replied to the pastor. A huge difference of perspective separates our search for the truth of reality: you begin with a flawed authority, the Judeo-Christian Bible, attempting to rationalize and justify all contrary evidence while I as an agnostic employ all evidence and logical reasoning to examine, according to scientific method, my conjectures, hypotheses, and theories, always prepared to correct or dismiss whatever happens to contradict my map when tested against the actual territory. Physicists and mathematicians do not rely upon a holy book of divine revelation, just discovery by means of mental exercise and observation. As Genesis mythologically makes obvious, your God disapproved of his human creations’ obtaining divine knowledge (reason, mathematics, logic, science) from the fruited tree in the Garden of Eden: thus, no mention is made of mathematics and science in Scripture. Accepting the wisdom of the serpent over the distant deity, who gave orders and threats without careful supervision, Adam and Eve apparently accepted the possibility of death, choosing enlightenment rather than eternal life, to know the mind of God. Einstein said: “I want to know how God created this world…. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.”
At the same time that the Hebrews were composing their books that would become the Torah and Old Testament, Greek philosophers, in particular Thales, Euclid, and the Pythagoreans, were discovering, harvesting pomegranates, principles of geometry, mathematics, and physics. Bible stories often contradict physics and biology. Later theologians such as Thomas Aquinas were dependent on Greek philosophical thought, particularly on Plato’s pupil Aristotle, for a foundation and edifice of the physical world on which to construct their moral and ethical cathedral.
What contributions did Christians make to mathematics and science prior to the Renaissance when the philosophy of humanism and the scientific spirit were reborn from the Greek revolution of thought? Some thinkers have pointed to a convergence between Buddhist philosophy and modern concepts of cosmology and quantum mechanics, at least at a superficial level. About 2000 years ago, a Hindi mathematician gave us, via the Muslims, the critical concept of zero along with the base-10 numbering system, allowing the flourishing of our modern system of numbering and calculating. Muslim mathematicians developed algebra. Europe muddled through the dark millennium of the Middle Ages because of the Roman Catholic Church’s antipathy toward science and mathematics, needing astronomers only for determining the timing of the moveable feast of Easter. The Church burned Bruno at the stake and silenced Galileo for daring to declare the truth of the Earth’s revolving around our Sun.
I prefer the evidence and reasoning to be found in Bart Ehrman’s books, Bishop John Shelby Spong’s “The Sins of Scripture,” A.N. Wilson’s “Jesus,” Robin Lane Fox’s “The Unauthorized Version,” Richard J. Stenger’s “God: The Failed Hypothesis,” Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” and Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation,” to name a handful who raise rational doubts. Knowing as much about the Bible and the early church as they do, why aren’t these scholars convinced of the genuineness of Christ? More than a dozen alternative interpretations of Jesus and his message extant within the early Christian communities included “The Gospel According to Thomas” (for which the Bible’s Fourth Gospel may have in part been an attempt to defame Thomas, according to Harvard professor of religious studies Elaine Pagels) and “The Gospel According to Mary of Magdala.” These and similar works the growing strength of the intolerant Roman Church attempted to suppress and destroy while excommunicating and executing dissident voices among the believers, who dared express contrary views, in the early centuries of Christianity’s struggles to convince its communities to accept and obey a singular theological dogma. If God were real, why would he have permitted much of this rival literature to have been safeguarded for hundreds of years to resurface some 70 years ago?
Of your assertion that your God has revealed himself exclusively through Moses (no evidence whatsoever of his existence), the gospelists, other canonical authors, and Saul/Paul (who usurped Jesus’s message, intended only for Jews, for an audience of Gentiles), then what of the revelations from Siddhartha, Muhammad, or even Joseph Smith? Since you cannot demonstrate that God belongs solely to Jews and Christians, you cannot claim that Judeo-Christian Scripture has any greater authority than other sacred scriptures. Further, as my columns have been showing, your Bible is deeply flawed with contradictions and inconsistencies, hardly what one would expect of the absolute perfect eternal Word of the World’s Creator. Are you willing to engage me in a discussion/debate with a detached, disinterested, unrestricted desire to know, to understand completely?
Patrick Ivers is an educator and agnostic. Mathematics is the language of the universe; literature, the articulation of the soul.