There is one common mistake made by all the present day critics of Christianity and that is they have taken the fall of the medieval mind, that occurred as a result of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of natural science, to be also the fall of the Christian mind.
Certainly the medieval mind was most influenced by Christianity but it was also influenced by elements alien to it such as the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Indeed the medieval mind was such a composite that its fall was not identical to the fall of the Christian mind. Rather, what has been named the Enlightenment really marked the fall of Medieval Christianity, a particular version of the faith that could not be held when it was no longer possible for heaven and hell to be places and the materialist view of the universe had won the day.
Medieval Christianity could not exist without the supernatural just as astrology could not exist after the Copernican revolution.
The question then becomes, can a Christianity that is more faithful to its origins exist without the supernatural? It is obvious that many biblical texts describe events that could not have happened in a materialist world. It would thus seem that our materialist understanding of the world, the products of which lie all around us in the development of science and technology, would make Christianity unthinkable. If the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ are but idle tales then surely the death knell of Christianity has rung.
Although this argument seems watertight I would argue that it is mistaken because the authors of the Bible and the early Church from whence the New Testament sprang are judged inappropriately by our post scientific revolution standards.
Part of the problem is that we are so influenced by the scientific world view that we find it difficult to imagine any other. But to understand the biblical mind we must try. Imagine a world view that did not have any concept of invisible cause. I specify “invisible” because all cultures make connections between sensible events. I see an antelope, I load an arrow in my bow, take aim and release, the arrow flies and hits the animal. Life would not make any sense without such causal trains.
What is hidden in this chain, and thus not reflected upon, is that light had to travel from the antelope to the hunter’s eye upon which a complex series of neurophysiological events would have been triggered that culminated in the aim and release. What would also have been hidden was the transfer of stored energy in the bow to the arrow and its subsequent attaining of a velocity determined by the laws of motion, and so on.
When causality consists only of a related series of events that follow one another in time and therefore are intuitively connected, there is room for different interpretations. The complex series of neurophysiological events may be put down to the activity of the soul. The appearance of the antelope may be a gift from the gods of the hunt. A drought may be interpreted as punishment for apostasy.
The biblical writers were thus not as restricted in the stories they told were they to have had our scientific understanding of causality. Present day writers who indulge in magical realism claim a similar freedom. The difference is that our magical realists know they are breaking the rules.
It may be argued that the biblical writers who described the miracles of Jesus did not know they were breaking the rules, that they were naïve about how the world works. Or were they? Surely the point about the miracles was that they were extraordinary, that was their point. If the writers understood them as ordinary occurrences they would not have related them.
The most extraordinary event of all is the raising of Jesus and you do not have to have a deep understanding of causality to know that this does not happen, dead men stay dead.
So it was not just a matter of biblical writers having a prescientific understanding of the world and writing naïvely. More to the point, their scientific naïvety allowed them to express theological ideas by relating extraordinary events. Certainly, we would protest the truth of such events. Men do not walk on water on a stormy night. No amount of rationalising will solve the problem.
Does this mean that we must strip the Bible of all extraordinary events and search for some message beneath them? Unfortunately when this is done we lose the richness that biblical narrative offers and are left with simplistic moralisation and handy hints about how to live our lives. The stories carry the meaning even though we know that certain events could not have happened. On the one hand we know that Jesus must have had an earthly father, on the other hand the writer, of the virgin birth narrative, is telling us something about Jesus’ relation to God.
The scientific critics of Christianity conclude that once it is agreed that the miracles cannot happen then Christianity loses all credibility. This presupposes that the miraculous in biblical texts function as proof of the existence of the supernatural.
Once we are convinced that all phenomena have a material basis, i.e. there is no such thing as a supernatural or a spirit world, then Christianity may be relegated to the superstitious and ignorant past. However, by and large, the miraculous in the Bible is not so used. Rather, extraordinary event are used (certainly in the New Testament) to point to the extraordinary person of Jesus.
When the gospel writers, many years after the death of Jesus, wrote a composite narrative that included both history and its interpretation (theology) they used the images of the day to express what they wanted to say.
The healing miracles told us that Jesus was the healer of a deeper malaise of the human spirit, when he is shown walking on water in the midst of the storm to the disciples assailed in the small boat of the church the story is redolent with triumph over the watery chaos.
The resurrection carries with it the message that this Jesus, whom we murdered, God has vindicated so that he will be with the church to “the end of the age”. When taken as proof texts, that deny our scientific view of the world, these stories are nonsense but when read theologically, with the Old Testament as background, they become profound texts that reveal that which we could not have conceived about ourselves.
In order to see that this is so we must suspend our scientific critical faculty and listen to the texts on their terms. Alas this is something that the present day crop of critics are loath to do. Scientific criticism of biblical texts is certainly a barrier to belief in our day, hence the writing of apologetics such as this. But it is not a barrier that is insurmountable.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Inheritors of the scientific revolution, if they are to have access to the rich imagery of biblical narrative, must learn to hold these two things in their mind at once, that the stories often could not have happened as they are told and that these same stories hold the key to our humanity.
As a working scientist and hence a materialist I also preach to a congregation on Sunday mornings. When I prepare the sermon I read the biblical texts “as if” they describe an actual event (and sometimes they do) even though that event is a material impossibility. I am not sure what members of the congregation think of these events. They may very well have a supernaturalist conception of the world that I do not feel the need to disrupt. Such theological investigations are better in a discussion group apart from the Sunday sermon. The point is, I suffer from no crisis of conscience when I preach a sermon. Neither do I need to compartmentalise my scientific career from my Churchly one.
The contemporary critics of Christianity have one string to their bow, that the now firmly established materialist view of the world cancels Christianity out as untrue. God as they conceive Him cannot exist, there can be no such thing as an immaterial substance. Hume and Kant have rightly told us so.
But when you look at many texts in the Bible that deal with God, especially in the personalism of the gospel of John in which we are told that the Father and the Son will make their home with men in the Spirit, it is obvious that the supernatural conscious monad that the philosophers and scientists tell us cannot exist has nothing at all to do with the God Christians worship.
The contemporary enemies of Christianity have a vested interest in not discovering what Christians believe about God. You would have thought that Richard Dawkins, resident as he is at Oxford would have wandered across the quad to talk with any number of theologians that reside there. I can only assume that he and his ilk are so enraged that anyone can be faithful that they are blinded to what these people have faith in.
They have isolated the God of the philosophers from the stories and traditions about Him thus turning Him into a creature of their own construction which they then take much delight in demolishing. This might do for some religious fanatic but we do not expect this from well educated men who hold positions at universities.