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.