Monday, November 19, 2007

Galileo, Fact, Reason, and the Role of Scripture

My priest, Nicholas Knisley was a physicist and astronomer before becoming a priest. He is teaching a college level "Physics for Poets" at the Cathedral that aims to examine the philisophical and theological implications for what we are learning.

Yesterday's lesson was on Galileo (which I missed due to a family commitment--sorry Nicholas), and in preparin for the class Nicholas clearly did some deep thinking. He posted the result of his thinking on his blog:

One of the things that leads some to argue that Galileo was the founder of the modern scientific method was his insistence that reason must be always compared to observation. Reason, by itself was not the final arbiter of a dispute.

It was his insistence on this point that was the core of his break from the teleological thinking of Aristotle.

It was also the core of the objection that the Catholic Church had to his writing. (Or so some have argued...)

I wonder if we might gain by making a similar requirement for theological thought. Theological reasoning must always be compared to observation...

In a real sense Holy Scripture contains the observation of God's action in the world. So using scripture as a theological norm would fit.

But what about things not covered in scripture? Should we be reasoning from principles found in scripture without comparing our deductions to observation?

Full blown calvinism would seem to me to argue that such an idea would necessarily lead to error. But what about folks who don't believe in the total depravity of creation?

This, of course, goes to the very heart of a major theological debate now occuring in the Anglican Communion, in addition to the larger church, over the role of scripture as an authoritative source. And on whether experience is itself a source of authority.

Be sure to read not only Nicholas' post, but also the comments (and add some of your own). Here is a sample of what interesting comments are being made in response to Nicholas' original post. D.C. Toedt offers this wonderful analogy:

Mark, for some reason what you said reminded me of standing watch as a newly-qualified officer of the deck (OOD) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the 1970s. I was a young lieutenant j.g. and was one of five or six qualified OODs aboard.

(By way of background, for four hours at a time, the on-watch OOD is in charge of, and responsible for, the entire ship as the captain's direct personal representative. On an aircraft carrier, the OOD is often de facto in charge of the task force of accompanying ships as well.)

I distinctly remember noting, soon after qualifying as OOD, that previously I had tended to spend too much time with my face glued to the radar scope. It was easier to do that than to try to mentally process all the amazing hurly-burly of a busy warship. It was almost as though the radar scope were an object of worship; if only I would pay it sufficient attention, I could ignore all the other distracting things that were going on, and all would be well. (Later, in training other would-be OODs, I saw that this was a very common failing.)

As the actual OOD, however, I found that the radar scope contained only part of the information I needed to function. If things were to go awry, the captain wouldn't give a [expletive] that I had been carefully monitoring the scope; what he wanted was for me to stay on top of things and make things happen the way he wanted. With that in mind, like other good OODs, I quickly learned merely to glance at the radar scope, and only every once in a while. I spent the rest of the time scanning the deck itself, the other gauges, the written watch orders, and most importantly, the horizon. I tried to suck in all the information I could, from every possible source, so that when circumstances changed - and they did, constantly - I could respond appropriately.

If we were to replace the term 'radar scope' with 'Bible,' I think our scripturalist friends have somewhat the same mindset as I did as a trainee OOD: If everyone will just pay sufficient attention to the Bible, we can ignore the distractions from the real world, and be confident that things will go the way we want them to do. These folks could benefit from a similar adjustment in perspective; unfortunately, I can't think of what might induce one.

Read the post and comments here.


JimII said...


I often think about my experience as OOD on a submarine when I think about processing data and considering the certainty of data points. We didn't use radar much, but we had a computer program that would generate dots on a geoplot for SONAR contacts. The raw data was hard to understand, but that was because the uncertainty was contained in its representation. Like the D.C. Toedt's experience, I recall the temptation of being overly dependant on the picture that suggested certainty instead of the fuzzy lines showing the intensity and direction of a particular sound.

Yeah, it's a pretty good analogy.

Mark Brown said...

I love the quote which goes something like: 'I head into the day with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.' The issue as I see it is that people are more than often heading out without their Bible.

Chuck Blanchard said...


Welcome to my blog. I suspect that you came here via the Christian Bloggers group at Facebook--all the way from New Zealand. I love that quote as well. I think that make a very good obsergation--while many of those within the church may not be going beyond the scriptures, for many others the problem may well be that the scriptures are ignored altogether.