same as always

It’s 12-12-12 today ((or was exactly 2,000 years ago to be pedantic)), and we are nearing the day (21-12-2012) which is heralded by some as something of an apocalypse and an end-of-the-world event.

Among other things, this highlights to me the reality that scientific discovery does not wipe out superstition.  People have always been superstitious and will always be.  Conversely, people have always denied any inherent purpose or meaning to the world – and they always will.

Science is great and helpful.  But I think Dallas Willard is spot on when he says “you can be very sure that nothing fundamental has changed in our knowledge of ultimate reality and the human self since the time of Jesus.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 106; emphasis original)

People wrongly think and speak as though at some point in history we learned some fact that forever sealed off the cosmos from any and all miracles; whereas the ancients, blissfully ignorant of this elusive fact we now know, had no other option.

In addition to ignoring the reality of ancient unbelief and scepticism, this way of thinking also misses the blindingly obvious truth that it’s psychologically and linguistically impossible to think or speak of a ‘super’-natural event if one has no idea of what a natural event is.  As Lewis said, when Joseph learned of Mary being pregnant, he was startled – not because he didn’t know how babies were conceived, but precisely because he did.

16 thoughts on “same as always”

  1. A couple of things: it seems to me that the reasoning, “We’ve always had smallpox and we always always will,” is not a way to approach the topic that will ever yield any knowledge nor produce any benefit, any more than, “People have always been superstitious and will always be, ” offers us anything but an absolute cop out that excuses ignorance to masquerade as pseudo-knowledge. Superstition is a similar line of reasoning, namely, “I don’t have any knowledge about some cause so I’ll substitute some magical notion – something that cannot be known – and pretend it’s the way it is.” Superstition is clearly an admission of ignorance. The converse is not another kind of similar pseudo-knowledge that presumes no purpose or meaning to the world; the converse is finding no compelling reasons from the natural world to believe there is. A lack of superstition is indicative of a critical faculties at work, even in the absence of knowledge. Having no answer is not a drawback to gaining knowledge but an essential ingredient of integrity. “I don’t know” is the right answer when their is an absence of knowledge.

    It also seems to me to be rather ridiculous to presume 1800 years prior to gleaning the first knowledge of how sperm and egg combine to produce offspring one can pronounce that Joseph was startled by Mary’s pregnancy because he understood how biological conception worked. This is nothing more than imposing a modern understanding on an ancient report to justify it, which is a very poor method of historical research and an assured way to misunderstand.

    Finally, I have no clue how ‘ultimate’ reality is in any way qualitatively different than reality. It seems to me to be another nebulous wiggle-word to try to evade it!

  2. I think ‘ignorance’ is a painful reality for ALL non-omniscient, finite observers such as us. Indeed we must all say ‘I don’t know’ (esp. if we are limiting ourselves to a strict evidentialist/materialist epistemology). Of course, your point is that we refuse to learn what we could know – which I think is just intellectual laziness. But this laziness is not just caused by superstition. It cuts both ways. Someone wishing to justify their theism or their naturalism can pretend that they have glimpsed a name-tag on the evidence that tips it in their favour, but again, as far as unbiased obseravtion goes, processes are just processes, neither ‘obviously intended’ nor ‘obviously unintended’. We just see them. That’s all.

    Superstition means ‘above’ ‘standing’ – It ‘goes beyond/above the standing evidence, so to speak. So again, you cannot be superstitious if you aren’t ‘stitious’ :) You have to have at least some working knowledge of something, and then you pile extra things on top of that. This may be my pedantic semantics at work here.

    The point about Joseph being startled is that he wanted to divorce her at first because he knew that babies were conceived through intercourse, and that he had not been with her. Similarly, miraculous reports such as a virgin conception/birth (apart from what I understand to be an incredibly rare happening in some animals) are not proliferated because of widespread ignorance as to how babies are conceived. Similarly with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Whilst ‘spiritual’ exaltations-to-the-heavens were commonly believed, people were well-aware that people stayed dead and their bodies stayed in the grave. (and for Greek conceptions of soul and heaven, you’d not want a body to be raised anyway) I’m rambling again.

  3. “Whilst ‘spiritual’ exaltations-to-the-heavens were commonly believed, people were well-aware that people stayed dead and their bodies stayed in the grave.”

    What about 1 and 2 Kings? The son of the widow of Zarephath, the Shunammite woman’s son and the young man laid in Elisha’s grave?

  4. …and Lazarus of course. Jesus’ resurrection was unique because it wasn’t just a re-livening of a dead person who would eventually die again, but it was a transformation of the body into a new kind of body. But yes, the point about knowing that dead-people-usually-stay-dead applies equally to those examples.

  5. I must have been too vague with my point… My point is, while everybody from cave-man to office-worker knows dead is normally the end – it is still factually accurate to say that Bronze Age culture had a far higher degree of faith in the miraculous back then than we do now.

  6. I’m sure it’d be hard to say how much higher. This post is just saying that belief in miracles was not because ancients had no idea of how things ‘naturally’ happened :)

  7. I’m sure the museums and libraries full of art and literature from the period depicting this high degree of faith should give you an idea. They knew ‘what’ normally happened, sure. But their depth of ‘how’ was shallow. If we stole Joseph and Mary or Abram and Sarai away into 2012 and secretly gave the female the COCP – why now, they would think her apparent barrenness was a curse or a punishment of some sort.

  8. Again, the relevant point here is that their understanding of the ‘how’, whilst less developed and sophisticated/specific than ours with the aid of modern science, was more than enough to know the difference between a natural conception and a miraculous one. You don’t need to know what a fallopian tube or zygote is to know that virgins don’t get pregnant. If we moderns want to call it a tall tale, then we should probably use the same accusation that those of the day would have, which was no doubt Joseph’s initial suspicion – namely that she’d cheated on him. But none of this talk that “oh they were ancient, unscientific, superstitious types”.

  9. Dale, my point is that superstitions of any kind (meaning any belief imposed on reality without compelling reasons from reality) are equivalent in all ways to not just maintaining ignorance but also a means to promote credulity and gullibility. These are not intellectual traits worth preserving or respecting. Also, the imposed belief acts as an impediment to honestly admitting an “I don’t know” response because its acceptance creates a pseudo-answer of belief that answers nothing with knowledge.

    You can try to spin superstitious belief to be a wonderful and wondrous kind of knowledge about a reality, but I see no possible way to differentiate that production (and the claims that describe it) from the medical condition we call ‘delusional’.

    Unless and until proponents of faith-based beliefs qualify these superstitious claims they promote to be equivalent to “I don’t know but I believe…” rather than ‘a different but equivalent way of knowing‘, then I think we have two very distinct sets of people: those who choose to respect what’s true (as well as respect a way to verify it independent of faith-based beliefs), and those who respect what is believed to be true (with no way to verify it independent of faith-based beliefs) . And when people choose the latter, then they have revealed their motives: not to find out what’s true (because that isn’t and never has been their goal) but to try to find support only for the faith-based belief. This motive undermines any and all honest discussion about the claims and thwarts those of us who are concerned about figuring out if claims made about reality are indeed true.

  10. I think you’ll find moderns don’t so much find it a tall tale because “but miracles can’t happen!!”

    It’s more the fact that the Hebrew word ‘almah’ can mean ‘young woman’ and also that miraculous births are very common throughout historical literature and religious texts predating the earliest Christian doctrine..

    There’s really nothing that special about Jesus that can’t be found in some other altruistic teachers of history. He has only the swords of the Romans and the resulting Middle Ages conquests to thank for his popularity today.

  11. Tildeb,
    I’m just as against superstitions as you. But this post particularly focuses on miracles, which I believe to be (in the sense of ‘miracle’ defined as purposeful/redemptive acts of God which transcend normative or ‘natural’ patterns of phenomena) quite rare. So I’m with you that superstition leads to more superstition, but I think the other side of the coin is that reductionism leads to more reductionism – so much so that I’ve talked with naturalists who are so convinced that ‘the evidence’ points to naturalism (nature is all there is, thus all phenomena are ‘natural’), that they are bound to their own dogmatism that says even a bodily resurrection (if it happened before their eyes) would have to be a ‘natural’ event.(or that if they ‘saw’ it – they would have to have been deluded).

    Ryan,
    I think it’s both, and I’ll just finish my input in this thread by saying that Jesus’ uniqueness isn’t dependent upon the absence of any other stories with features even remotely like his. And whilst people more informed on the topic than either of us debate this, I think it’s fair to say that the Gospels have the strongest interests in being seen to be historical.

  12. ” that they are bound to their own dogmatism that says even a bodily resurrection (if it happened before their eyes) would have to be a ‘natural’ event.(or that if they ‘saw’ it – they would have to have been deluded).”

    You’ll find what they’re bound to is a keenness to discover the hows and whys of happenings, namely, they’re bound to the field of scientific thought. Discovering how things work. Dale, if a bodily resurrection occurred would you rather a) just believe it was supernatural and leave it be or b) try and figure out just how it happened, how it worked.

    The reason bodily resurrection (especially the kind found in the ancient world) is normally disregarded is because it is frequently found in many myths and legends. It’s very common in folklore. It’s… fantasy.

    ” I think it’s fair to say that the Gospels have the strongest interests in being seen to be historical.”

    Not sure exactly what you’re saying here but if you’re saying “the gospel writers’ intentions were to appear historical” – then of course. I agree.

  13. Even supernatural events can be explored, so the ‘keenness to discover’ isn’t stifled by it being a supernatural event any more than it would be stifled by being ‘strictly’ natural. And I’d be interested to know a) where you’ve seen these ‘common’ resurrections that are of the kind which the NT describes of Jesus’ own one, and b) what kind of literary intent you mean to imply by saying that they intended the gospels to “appear” historical. Should Luke have written to Theophilus that he was writing “an orderly account of ‘what appeared to be – but weren’t actually/necessarily’ events that ‘appear to have been – but weren’t actually/necessarily’ fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word…”?

  14. “Even supernatural events can be explored, so the ‘keenness to discover’ isn’t stifled by it being a supernatural event”

    Haha you’ll have to demonstrate that one, chief. Cos if I ask a Christian “How did Jesus rise from the dead?” for example, the answer is always “He was God” or “God did a miracle” etc. Boom. Conversation stopper. No exploring or discovering the ‘hows’ there..

    “And I’d be interested to know a) where you’ve seen these ‘common’ resurrections that are of the kind which the NT describes of Jesus’ own one”

    Maybe start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_and_origin_of_the_Resurrection_of_Jesus

    and here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-death-rebirth_deity

    “and b) what kind of literary intent you mean to imply by saying that they intended the gospels to “appear” historical.”

    Whoa whoa, all I was trying to do was figure out what on earth you meant by:

    “I think it’s fair to say that the Gospels have the strongest interests in being seen to be historical.”

    So if you could explain that – that would be choice. Like to me that reads, “The gospels (or their writers?) have strong interests in appearing (being seen) to be historical”.

  15. re ‘conversation stopper’
    yes and no. Yes, as in any search for anything, there is a fitting time to stop – i.e. when you’ve found what you’re looking for. but No, even knowing that ‘x’ is miraculous still leaves the meaning and significance of ‘x’ to be explored.

    re ‘common myths’
    You may be giving too little criticism to popular things like ‘Zeitgeist’ (debunked by better atheists than those who made it), or other sources which give very poor attention to the details of those myths. Ironically, your two pages you link to provide more criticism than support. The mythical god stories of rebirth invariably fail to have a death, or a resurrection (of any kind let along a thoroughly bodily one).

    re ‘history’
    I’m simply distinguishing the genre of the gospels from those of others. As your first link says, ” the majority consensus among biblical scholars is that the genre of the Gospels is a kind of ancient biography and not myth.”

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