Skepticism, orthodoxy, and the life of faith

Ben Myers at Faith and Theology wrote a post recently on the Virgin Birth in which he made the case for accepting the historic faith of the church rather than criticizing beliefs that may not seem to pass the test of critical historical investigation. “It’s a good thing to believe something that you didn’t invent for yourself. It’s a good thing to have a certain framework, a story that tells you what kind of place the world really is, so that there are some basic questions that are already settled, that you don’t have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about.”

This generated a vigorous response from Jeremy at An und für sich, who characterizes Myers position as “provid[ing] the individual a way to escape the existential anxiety of life by offering a coherent narrative that diminishes the stress of having to make decisions and take responsibility for his/her desires.” Jeremy identifies as a Christian but agrees with, inter alia, Wolfhart Pannenberg that “theology has to be historical” and that certain doctrines should be rejected “if they do not stand up to the historical method, a method that Ben finds irrelevant.”

When I read Ben Myers’ post, I did have a problem with the view that he attributes to Karl Barth about the historical status of miracles:

Barth always insists that acts of divine revelation are ‘not historical’. But he doesn’t mean they never happened. All he means is that revelation is a unique event, an act of God. It’s not part of the normal historical sequence, it doesn’t belong to a chain of cause-and-effect, and so there’s no use trying to verify or disprove it on historical grounds.

So in the case of the virgin birth, Barth argues that it’s not subject to the methods of historiography. Its truth isn’t for historians to decide. But he certainly believes that it really happened, that it happened in time and space, within the real material human world. It involved Mary’s body, her real flesh and blood. In this section of Church Dogmatics, Barth’s brilliant critique of Brunner rests on the assumption that the virgin birth really happened. His point is just that it happens as revelation, as an act of God.

I think it’s safe to assume that Myers has gotten Barth right here (or at least, I’m in no position to judge matters of Barthian exegesis). However, as a piece of theology (or metaphysics), I find it confused. If the Virgin Birth–or any other purportedly miraculous event–”happened in time and space,” then I don’t see how Barth can simultaneously say that “it doesn’t belong to a chain of cause-and-effect.” Even if an event is “an act of God”–that is to say it doesn’t have a “natural” cause, or at least is not fully explicable in terms of natural causes–once it has occurred it presumably becomes part of successive chains of cause-and-effect. Otherwise, it would not have “really happened” in space-and-time but would float docetically and epiphenomenally above the natural chain of cause-and-effect.

But if this is right, then we can’t say that miracles are per se beyond the reach of historical investigation. Any event that has historical effects is–in principle–open to historical investigation. Now, the Virgin Birth seems to be largely beyond the reach of the tools of history simply as a practical matter. After all, we’re talking about a purported miracle that occurred in a woman’s womb over 2,000 years ago. So the kind of verifiable evidence that a historian would use to corroborate it is notably lacking by the very nature of the case. But something more “public”–the Resurrection of Jesus is the obvious example–would be a different matter. If the Risen Christ appeared in time and space to specific people–as the New Testament seems to unanimously claim–then a historian can in principle investigate such claims, even if she can never–qua historian–conclude that the Resurrection was an act of God. And this suggests that religious doctrines can, in principle, be revised in light of developments in historical (and other “secular”) knowledge. Barth, by contrast, seems to want to have his cake and eat it too: miracles “really happened” but can never be evaluated by secular intellectual tools.

That said, I’m sympathetic to Ben Myers’ overall position in this sense: living a Christian life isn’t primarily about constantly revisiting individual articles of the creed to determine anew if you “really” believe them. There is a sense in which, once you’ve become a Christian, certain things should be treated as “settled” (at least to some extent) so you can get on with the business of living a Christian life. Here’s an analogy: in our political lives we aren’t constantly questioning the fundamental merits of liberal democracy or constitutionally guaranteed rights, but are trying (ideally) to create a more just and workable society within those parameters. That’s not to say that the fundamentals should never be criticized, but simply that critical reflection isn’t the whole–or even the main–business of life. Clearly new events or evidence can call into question things we had treated as settled–and these present occasions for critical reflection upon and modification of our “framework.” But if we were constantly interrogating our own beliefs (religious or otherwise), we couldn’t use them as a guide for living. I think this makes the life of faith a balancing act: we can never simply rest secure in a “faith once delivered,” but we also have to start in medias res, and therefore take a lot for granted.

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14 thoughts on “Skepticism, orthodoxy, and the life of faith

  1. That’s a common problem. It takes a bit more reading to get what Barth means by this whole “happens in history, but isn’t a part of the causal chain” thing. My take on it, from religion and science conversations and Pragmatism, is that it’s about the verifiability or disprovability of the event. The claim seems to be that this isn’t ever “the kind of thing that happens” so that its causal chain could be possible or plausible in general world-historical terms, and there would be a probability matrix for this sort of event.

    And you’re right; it happens in history, and it does, even as an act of God, form a causal chain of its own. But it doesn’t belong to the normal run of history, and it isn’t part of a causal chain. So it isn’t so much that it’s beyond the reach of investigation metaphysically—even though it is beyond the range of investigation practically, as a hapax for which we weren’t present. But “secular intellectual tools” of evaluation tend to be good for evaluating general possibilities and probabilities. And unless you accept the evidence, such as it is, and according to its own character, we really have no way back behind it to the event using sciences. Because, once again, it isn’t the sort of thing that happens in the general run of history. The miracle isn’t alien to history and creation and reality, but it isn’t something that ever happens by chance.

    Honestly, the same problem is had with respect to any agentic behavior. Agency is not essentially predictable, even if it may be probabilistic in groups. However unlikely, any action available to an agent may happen.

  2. Thanks for the comment and clarification, but I’m still not convinced that we can build as impregnable a wall between history and faith as Barth seems to want. History doesn’t just deal with the ex ante probability of events, but with specific–often relatively unique–events. And certainly ones involving the actions of agents. I think few historians (nowadays at least) would try to subsume historical explanation under the kind of general laws more appropriate to the “harder” sciences. At the very least, can’t a historian ask whether the available evidence points to some “x” that must have been the source of set of succeeding events, even if she can’t definitively characterize it as “miraculous”? Conversely, if a historian can provide a plausible explanation of an event (or a belief that an event occurred) without adverting to the miraculous, doesn’t that–other things being equal–provide some reason to disbelieve the miracle?

    1. It’s not a question of an impregnable wall, or a wall of any kind. Barth isn’t dividing faith from history, any more than he’s dividing God’s actions from history. But he is dividing God’s actions from natural causes. I suggest picking up III.1 for an example of the difference between happening in history and being historical.

      And you may think up as many explanations as you like for a phenomenon—but they only become relevant models in a scientific sense (Geisteswissenschaftlich as much as Naturwissenschaftlich) if you can test them. And you must remember that in testing, it is always the event, the reality, that disproves the models, and never the other way around.

      You may disbelieve or believe anything you like, but the rational becomes no more real for your trust in it. Any such causal “model” for an act of divine agency is not an attempt at proof of any sort—it is an attempt at persuasion. It is this as much for the folks that think they’re proving that the Matthean star existed as for the ones that think they’re disproving the virgin birth. You cannot disprove an event; you can only render it unlikely. And “miracles” are already admitted as such! You may only choose which you trust, and which you do not.

  3. I’m on board with the idea that God’s actions have to be modeled differently from other events, but how, on Barth’s view, does one come to believe that a particular event is a divine act? Or distinguish between genuine and spurious miraculous claims?

    1. That, I don’t have from Barth. I don’t even have a hunch as to where to look for criteria for that kind of choice. Someone else may know. However, the Anselm book would be my starting place to try to find out, since it’s the treatment of epistemological method going into the Church Dogmatics.

      1. First off, thanks for the link. I was also wondering what are the criteria to determine whether an event qualifies as ‘divine’. I’ve read all of CD, but I don’t remember any serious discussion. Mostly I wrote my post because I hate apologetics (both theistic and atheistic). That doesn’t mean I don’t have my reasons for being Christian, but i can’t stand when Christians act superior to people of other faiths or people with no faith. I think I’m firmly in the Barthian tradition by rejecting apologetics, although Barth wasn’t too kind to our sisters and brothers in other religious traditions. For me, religions always return to the question of suffering. You either accept that God in the midst of suffering or reject God. I can certainly understand both decisions, although I have chosen the former.

  4. “It’s a good thing to believe something that you didn’t invent for yourself. ”

    Why is it any better to believe something someone else invented? I agree with Jeremy.

    I don’t know anything about Barth, but I think both CS Lewis’ and Keith Ward’s ideas about miracles allow them to be real events, caused and experienced, and available for provinhg?

  5. I tried (unsuccessfully) to Tweet this earlier, but I think that the “miracles are events in history but not historical events” maxim is less about protecting religious claims from scientific inquiry and more about desacralizing history. It seems to me that God, in Barth’s opinion, acts on history but not in or through it. History (and culture as well) is to Barth as the Law was to Luther–incapable of saving, only capable of inducing pride or despair. In the Commentary on Romans he even dehistoricizes eschatology, writing that the kingdom of God does not come at the end of history but beats like waves on a shore against every historical time. History, for Barth, seems to be going nowhere (at least in his earlier writings). And I suppose that this should be understood in light of the bourgeois Protestant liberalism that Barth was so opposed to.

    All that said, I agree more with Pannenberg who argues that history is the proving ground for truth claims.

  6. “once it has occurred it presumably becomes part of successive chains of cause-and-effect.”

    But historical explanations don’t refer to what comes after an event — that is the (historical) sin of “reading history backwards.” (“The Magna Charta was a step along the way to the American Revolution” may be a decent historical explanation for the latter, but it is a terrible one for the former.) So a miracle that is not explicable in terms of its contingencies to the preceding events is historically inexplicable. I.e., I think Barth has this right.

  7. My point was just that if a miracle occurs in time and space, then it (presumably) has effects that are part of the “normal” chain of cause and effect. (Or at least an event that had no effects wouldn’t be of much interest.) And historical study tries to understand events at least in part by looking at their effects. Which makes sense since the character of an event presumably determines what kinds of effects it will have, at least to some extent. For example, the Resurrection of Jesus (reputedly) had the effect of transforming the apostles from dejected and fearful followers of a man executed by the state as a criminal into zealous preachers of the gospel. So, other things being equal, if we discovered, via historical investigation, that this wasn’t the case (I realize this is as a practical matter highly unlikely, but it seems possible in principle), then the claim that the Resurrection occurred as the New Testament presents it would be weakened. So it seems to me that claims of the miraculous are not–again in principle–immune to historical falsification. (I assume the claim is not that genuine miracles can’t be historically falsified since that is true by definition of any event that happened–if it really happened you can’t prove that it didn’t!)

  8. I find a lot of truth in what Marcus Borg writes about creeds and some of the miracles. We often want to say that unless you believe these REALLY happened, you aren’t a Christian. Whether they happened or not, though, what is ultimately important is:

    1) Why the biblical authors chose to include those stories to begin with. They’re not trying to just say what happened. They are saying something significant happened in Jesus. Why is it significant? What point are they trying to get across by telling THAT story? Whether they really happened or not, interpret them as one might one of Jesus’ parables, which were fictions that were still definitely true;

    2) They are a part of our Christian story. For that, Christians should give them significance. I can get and say the Apostles’ Creed without flinching as I’m affirming that I CREDO, I give my heart to the God expressed in the Christian story – whether it happened exactly like that or not.

    I think it is also interesting to consider the definition of a miracle. Did they only occur in ancient times? Don’t they happend today? I’ve had conversations with people who have dealt with addictions who are certain something miraculous happened in turning their lives around. Is that outside of history? Most (if not all) would say, I’m sure, that this certainly started a chain of cause and effect.

    I’m enjoying your blog, by the way!

    1. Thanks, Troy! I’ve also found what Borg says about this helpful, though I’d probably say that, at least in certain cases, it does matter whether it “really happened.” I find Borg a little vague on this at times.

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