The Heretical Imperative

By Walter Lee

"Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth." Archemedes, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, London, 1953, p. 14.

One of the great innovative thinkers of Western civilization and a forerunner of what would become the scientific method, Archemedes (287-212 B.C.E.) is a recognized pioneer in the physics of mechanics (and other scientific fields). His discourses include works on the lever, the inclined plane and the screw. The quote cited above comes from his work on levers and fulcrums. The point made is that with the right tools, great things can be achieved. However, he recognized that there was a hitch. In order to use a lever and a fulcrum, one requirement, often unnoticed, was a foundation for the fulcrum and a place for the actor to stand.

Archemedes' recognition is not limited to the physical sciences. They apply to philosophy and religion as well. All who seek to apply the tools of logic, science, and rationality share a requirement for some stable platform to launch their assault on (or defense of) some particular position. We have no way of examining the fundamental "ground beneath our feet." When our examination turns in that direction, we have to shift positions and stand on something else.

The fundamental ground of philosophy and religion are the assumptions that we make about reality. "Science" assumes an orderly universe which conforms to "natural laws." When apparent randomness enters into the system, it is assume that some deeper, hidden law controls the event-- a law yet to be discovered. "When the data does not conform to the hypothesis, change the hypothesis. Don't reject the data." The religionist (at least in Western religious thought) assumes the existence of a deity who has both power (limited/unlimited?) and freedom to exert a will on events. Fundamentalists of any number of religions choose an intermediate point. They assume that the scriptures of their faith have been provided in some inerrant form to provide "solid ground" on which to stand so they can use the tools of rationality "to prove" other "truths." Sometimes, they go so far as to act as if the deity is not free to violate written scripture.

None of these theories of bedrock reality can be proven or disproven. Most of them, at least the lasting ones, have a degree of internal consistency. They can be challenged using other fundamental assumptions, but since they do not accept the fundamental assumptions of their challengers, their system is not overturned.

The fundamental assumptions of any system are taken on faith. Pushed enough, we come to the level of "of course" statements-- statements which are so obvious to us that we are confounded and amazed that others do not automatically recognize their validity. The Founders of the United States wrote in "The Declaration of Independence": "We hold these truths to be self evident..." That's what we are talking about: "self evident truth." Either you see it or your don't. In most cases, one must enter the frame of reference of the speaker in order to appreciate the insight. Certainly, the proposition that "all men are created equal" was not self evident to George III or his royal court.

Sociologist Peter Berger has noted that in traditional (primitive) cultures, members are exposed only to a single set of fundamental assumptions. (Different cultures are based on differing mythological epistemologies but each culture, if it is to survive, has an internal consistency.) To challenge the underlying mythology is heresy and severe penalties are imposed including death or banishment.. "Heresy" is based on the Greek root for "to choose for one's self." The irony pointed to by Berger is that even when one chooses "traditional" values, he or she has become heretical, because in the process of intentionally choosing any set of values (even the traditional ones), alternatives must be considered. Knowing that alternatives exist is essence of heresy. Berger addresses the modern situation with its multitudes of religions, philosophies and paradigms (and the conversations/debates between them), declaring that we live with "a heretical imperative."

Lesslie Newbegin, building on Berger's work, takes it a step further. He asserts that "science" and the "scientific method" compose a new "orthodoxy" for the Western culture-- that a "scientific" approach to life is assumed, and that anyone who seriously challenges a scientific platform ("a place to stand") for public discourse is presumed to be the modern heretic. People who do not accept conventional logic (and conventional assumptions of the nature of reality) are considered mentally unstable or deranged. Mild cases are tolerated or ignored as eccentrics. Severe cases are defined as "ill" and hospitalized. (Non scientifically based religious myths are accepted for individual comfort as long as they are not asserted as "public truth.")

If "science" is the new generally accepted paradigm, we have a problem. That's because most who think of "science" and "the scientific method" are locked in the 19th century model of a mechanical, orderly world. The popular understandings of science are lagging almost a century behind the cutting edges of modern scientific thought. Newtonian certainty has given way to "probability" and "uncertainty." "Chaos theory" is being applied to many of the scientific arenas. (I am not going to try to describe any of these theories and principles because I don't understand them. I only have a bachelor's degree in physics and that was from a quarter century ago. Even Einstein was willing to declare that he never really grasp quantum theory.) I have read books in several of these fields but I make no claim to knowledge. What I do know is that popular understandings of what is and is not "science" are a long way from the driving ideas in a modern scientific understanding of reality.

In my debate with Lizard, we reached the point of competing fundamental assumptions. His are different than mine. We share no common platform on which we can stand to evaluate the merits and problems of the various systems. Without such a platform, there was no point to continuing the discussion. Each of us could "shout" our "truths" in louder and louder voices, but neither of us would convince the other to change. (The old adage "Never try to teach a pig to sing. It doesn't work and it annoys the pig" come to mind. Lizard is free to apply it to me as I to him.)

In an effort to declare myself, let me describe what I believe are my "fundamental assumptions." I believe that "Truth" does not contradict "Truth:" that when apparent "truths" collide, one or both of them needs to be modified. I believe in paradox: there are occasions when two "truths" collide and each is very close to the "Truth," so close that I cannot negate or correct either of them. In such paradox is "mystery" and sometimes I have to accept that "Truth" is bound in the mystery. (I distinguish between "Truth" and "truth.")

I do not believe that sensually observable data is the only determination of Truth. While sensory data contributes to any argument, it does not compose the totality of reality. Data, by itself, is useless. In order to have meaning, it must be organized by a cognitive framework. All conceptual frameworks are intuitive in their creation. A pattern (hypothesis) must be recognized during the accumulation of all data. There is a jump from partial data to hypothesis. Some make the jump very early in the collection process (sometimes before the formal collection begins); some after most of the data is in. (Conceptual frameworks are not all equal. Some fall under the weight of data.) However, the leap from raw data to pattern is somewhere between a logical exercise and intuition (which boarders on mysterious revelation.) No one understands how the brain operates or from whence new "ideas" come. I tend to lean on the theories of Carl Jung as he speaks of a collective unconscious which cannot be distinguished from the religious ideas of God.

I believe in the fundamental recognitions of the authors of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. They "intuit" a creative, benevolent life force who claims the divine name YHWH-- "I am who I am," or "I will be who I will be." They "intuit" a teleological universe-- moved, influenced and shaped by YHWH. They "intuit" YHWH's involvement in the midst of the created order-- an involvement that seems random in from human perspective, but totally consistent with the notion of a God who is ultimately free. ("Supernatural" occurances are by definition outside the explanation of the "natural" sciences.) The culmination of this divine activity is described in the incarnation and the resurrection-- that YHWH transcends the normal elements of creation and through the Christ demonstrates both the nature of God and the fulness of human potential. The gospels reveal a Jesus who as enigmatic: speaking in often uninterpreted parables and stories, re- interpreting Old Testament history and law, presenting both harsh new demands on the believer along with grace that seems to nullify law itself. My reading of scripture causes me to reflect, ponder and meditate in ways that seem to open me to new connections and ideas. Scripture for me is the defining myth which shapes reality as I see it. It challenges the easy assumptions of every human culture, including the cultures in which it was written.

Someone has define "myth" as "that which never was and always is." I cannot defend the historicity of all of scripture. (In fact, I cannot defend the historicity of any human record. No matter how many observers and how many recording devices are used, all events are viewed from a finite number of fixed positions. Some events are clearer than others but even eyewitnesses standing shoulder to shoulder see different things.) I can accept the "mythical" nature of scripture, but that in no way for me negates its Truth. (For those who want to discount ancient census numbers and some divine commands to slaughter men, women and children, fine with me. I can't argue specific pieces of data. I wasn't there.) However, I believe (choose to believe) that the framework of scripture creates the organizing principles by which I find meaning in life. They reflect the tension that exists as we recognize that the God of the Group ("chosen people") and the Creator of all the world (including our enemies) are One. The scriptures affirm the tension between love and justice, grace and law. They reflect the awareness that some have eyes to see and ears to hear (and that some have hardened hearts-- imponderable from a human perspective but consistent with the freedom of God. This observation fits with my experience.) In the end, the framework of scripture declares that the end is not the end-- that a remnant will survive and eventually prevail, that life transcends death, that hope in God's future providence can overcome the despairs of yesterday and today.

Einstein is reported to have once declared that the fundamental question which must be answered by everyone is this: "Is the universe a friendly place?" I answer in the affirmative. While the universe is full of mystery which can be interpreted as benevolent or malicious, I choose to sense in it, a positive, purposeful, undergirding direction. I will not allow myself to accept an arbitrary, nihilistic framework for reality. My reasoning is this: the universe is either positive, neutral or negative. If it is against life and love, there is nothing I can do about it. If it is neutral, then it will become what we make it and I would rather make it positive. If it is positive, then I am going with the flow, and many times it seems that way to me.

This is the ground on which I stand. It is the ground of faith. At times that ground trembles and shakes, but I have no place to go which does not negate life itself. Yes, I am a heretic. (On this, I suspect that both rationalists and Christian fundamentalist will agree.) I realize I have choices to make. So do we all. We live under the curse of a heretical imperative.