A Surprising Ally

As a Christian trying to pay attention to the ongoing cultural dialog (sometimes better characterized as a steel-cage match) concerning the relationship between faith and science, I’ve recently been intrigued by the voice of someone who, in many respects, might be considered an unlikely ally.

Stanley Fish currently serves as the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University, having held previous posts at such luminous institutions as Cal-Berkley, Johns Hopkins, and Duke. That his blog is posted on the New York Times website is illustrative of his status as one of our nations most prominent academics.

One of Fish’s largest scholarly contributions is in the area of literary criticism, a contribution that is in some ways at odds with a historic Protestant notion of biblical authority and interpretation. As a result, his work has attracted serious interaction and criticism from noted evangelical scholars.

That’s why I was somwhat surprised to find myself sympathetic toward several points Fish makes in a handful of blog posts he’s written concerning the New Atheists and the nature of religious and scientific knowledge.

For example, in 2007 Fish engaged the prominent atheist trio of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins in a post entitled Atheism and Evidence. An excerpt:

[Dawkins] believes, like Harris, that ethical facts can be explained by the scientific method in general and by the thesis of natural selection in particular. If that thesis is assumed as a baseline one can then generate Darwinian reasons, reasons that are reasons within the Darwinian system, for the emergence of the behavior we call ethical. One can speculate, as Dawkins does, that members of a species are generous to one another out of a desire (not consciously held) to preserve the gene pool, or that unconditioned giving is an advertisement of dominance and superiority. These, he says, are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”

Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who “can’t see” the evidence or “refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,” but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share – “hope,” “belief,” “undoubtedly,” “there will come a time” – and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

And just recently, responding to several people commenting on one of his previous posts, Fish offered the following in God Talk, pt. 2:

Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.

Some readers find a point of vulnerability in what they take to be religion’s flaccid, Polyanna-like, happy-days optimism. Religious people, says Delphinias, live their lives “in a state of blissfully blind oblivion.” They rely on holy texts that they are “to believe in without question.” (C.C.) “No evidence, no problem — just take it on faith.” (Michael) They don’t allow themselves to be bothered by anything. Religion, says Charles, “cannot deal with doubt and dissent,” and he adds this challenge: “What say you about that, Professor?”

What I say, and I say it to all those quoted in the previous paragraph, is what religion are you talking about? The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,” Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty.

…So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.

To be sure, I don’t agree with everything in Fish’s reflections on these subjects. My sense is that his ideas can often use a “yes, but….” Still, I’m happy to find someone who is not easily dismissed as a “religious nut” arguing that religious belief itself not so easily banished to irrationality and naiveté.

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