Faith and Reason

Thanks for your emails about my postings over the weekend. My own position is pretty well summed up here:

"Ehrman's dilemma--how can scripture be inspired and true, when it contains numerous factual inconsistencies and contradictions?--is actually an old one. Augustine and many other early church fathers recognized the human limitations in divine scripture, and developed sophisticated, non-literalist interpretations of scripture.

Ehrman, unfortunately, falls victim to a false and rather sophomoric choice: scripture is either purely God's words (essentially, it is dictated by God) or purely human words (perhaps noble and meaningful, or mendacious and corrupt, but nonetheless not divine). Christian fundamentalism and most of Islam choose the former; Ehrman chooses the latter, but, in doing so, has become the mirror image of his fundamentalist upbringing. Certainly, Catholic theology and doctrine, along with most mainstream Protestant thought, reject that dichotomy, opting instead to say that scripture is God's word expressed in human words. As Vatican II held in Dei verbum (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), both God and humans are "true authors" of scripture, and that accordingly God made "full use of their [human] powers and faculties" in the formation of scripture (Dei verbum, #11). That is, Scripture is truly and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, and expresses that divinity through human agents. The divine and the human work hand-in-hand, with all of the possibilities and limitations implied therein.

In a Q&A session this past Thursday to the clergy of the diocese of Rome, Pope Benedict made precisely this point: "This synergy [between God and humanity] is very important. We know that the Koran, according to Islamic faith, is the word verbally given from God, without human mediation. The Prophet didn't enter into it. He only transcribed and communicated it. It is the pure word of God. For us [Christians], however, God enters into communion with us, leads us to cooperate with him, thus creating this subject [of the church] and in this subject his word grows and is developed. This human part is essential." 

Both fundamentalism and atheism, however, fear this divine-human synergy; they are two sides of the same puritanical coin. Fundamentalism in all of its religious forms, on the one hand, is marked by a fear of contamination of the divine by the human, which contradicts the foundational principle of Christianity: God has become incarnate as a human being, Jesus Christ, and has thus chosen to be near to us, to truly and fully be one of us. Christianity, by its very nature, positively celebrates the union of God and humanity.

Atheism, on the other hand, is marked by a fear of the contamination of the human by the divine. It holds that for one to be truly human, one must kill the divine. "God" is the master who enslaves us, taking away our freedom. This is Nietzsche, and it is the burden that Pope Benedict has taken upon himself in his preaching and writing; his encyclical Deus caritas est is nothing other than the attempt to show that God is not the enemy of human flourishing, but its very possibility. The divine gives life to the human; it doesn't take it away. Aquinas would say that faith perfects (and does not destroy) reason, grace perfects (and does not destroy) nature.

You know this, of course, but it may help in steering between the Scylla of atheism and the Charybdis of fundamentalism. That "third way," as you put it, is the only credible (and reasonable) option."

This is the third way I'm trying to steer toward in my book. I fear that Ehrman was indeed a victim of his early fundamentalism. It's a spiritual condition hard to recover fully from. One thing I do know: nothing that comes genuinely from Jesus sounds anything like the dictates of contemporary fundamentalism.