Do our Symbols Align with Reality?

Can't we all just get along?

Are we willing to learn something from science?

I’ve got a new favorite podcast added to my already overburdened podcast app.  You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes has been in regular rotation during my commute to and from work. What I really enjoy about this show is that Pete Holmes is a comedian and that keeps things interesting but most importantly he’s interested in exploring hard and deep questions. From listening to the podcast I’ve learned that Pete grew up in church, became disillusioned and walked away for a time but has now becoming interested in spiritual matters again. His interest is not necessarily Christian, but because of his Christian background he usually ends up addressing/critiquing Christian ideas, concepts and dogma in a way that only a comedian can do.

Which is a very good thing and ends up making quite interesting podcasts.

The show has featured all sorts of people including: Ray Romano, Sinbad, Bill Nye, David Bazan and Rob Bell. While each of those podcasts, and many others, could have inspired blog posts in their own right, there is one that surprisingly got me thinking deeply about faith. The episode that featured a conversation with theoretical physicist Brian Greene (who has also done a lot of TED talks) had my theological brain spinning every 5 minutes or so. I went back and listened to it again as I started to write out the post and it had me just as engaged as the first time I listened. At about 33 minutes in, this quote got dropped in my lap:

“The symbol on the page has to be aligned with something out there in the world.”
-Brian Greene, from “You Made it Weird” Podcast #206

This quote came in the midst of a discussion about how theoretical physics may fool people into thinking that it’s detached from reality. Brian Greene brings it back to earth by saying that theoretical physics is based in what is already known about reality, physics and even a bit of philosophy. What theoretical physicists think up has to have a basis in what we already know and what we already believe if it is to have any benefit to research and science. What they are looking to prove and whatever math and ideas they use to hypothesize with has to have some basis in how the world actually works.

When he said “symbol” and “page” my mind I began to think about the Bible and how we understand it in light of how we understand the world. I began to wonder how the symbols on the page of Scripture align with reality? How much do we try to align what we read in Scripture with reality in contrast to how much we might try to “spiritualize” or divorce what we read in Scripture from reality.

Now, I know that the Bible is pointing us to a transcendent reality beyond what we can normally sense here on Earth. But, at the same time it is revealing to us the heart and character of that transcendent God who has chosen to interact with and reveal himself to the world we can sense. In a way, God has not “spiritualized” himself beyond reality but has chosen to align himself with reality in such a way that he can interact with, revel in and redeem it.

To adjust an old Christian cliché, God is not so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good. God is quite earthly minded.

With that in mind, can we make space for a sort of “theoretical theology” in our interactions with Scripture and with the world? I think it’s really hard for Christians to learn and apply something from a scientific model as we may often think the Bible is at odds with science. But, I think we might have a great deal to learn from science in this.

What if we were more open to having our ideas and thoughts open to debate and scrutiny in the wider world? What if we saw them as less of an attack but a work to align what we do with the good of the world? When scientists work on hypotheses or theories, they reveal their work to the wider world for application and scrutiny. If what they’ve discovered works and is repeatable everyone celebrates and adds it to the “library” of scientific knowledge.

Conversely, if what they have “discovered” does not work and is not repeatable it is then challenged, scrutinized and potentially dismissed.

Are there things that we believe about the Bible and reality that when opened for wider scrutiny might not be usefully repeated or do not work as we thought it might?

Or has been overwritten by a newer understanding?

For example, there was a time in recent history when Isaac Newton’s laws of physics were considered constant and immutable. Then we discovered a little thing (really, little like at the atomic level) called quantum theory which challenges some of what Newton asserted. Heck, go back far enough and we’ll find people who asserted that the universe rotated around the Earth and then a guy like Copernicus comes along and demonstrates that it is the Earth that moves and provided scientific models and successfully made predictions that proved his models. About which Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, once said, “People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon…This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”

If now we accept that what the Bible states about astronomy is inaccurate because of a wider understanding of how the world and cosmos works, what are some other things that we believe about Scripture, or that we think Scripture says, that might not hold up under the weight of scrutiny and current knowledge? What things would still hold up if we remained grounded in the traditions of the wider Christian community? What if we weighed our beliefs, like science does its theories, against the wider Christian world? Acts tells us the story of Paul’s interactions with the Bereans who, “examined the scriptures each day to see whether Paul and Silas’ teaching was true.” (Acts 17:11 CEB). By examining Paul’s words, comparing them to the Scripture and coming to the conclusion that Paul’s symbols aligned with reality the Bereans accepted and believed Paul’s teachings. They were open to the new understanding and beliefs Paul brought nearly 2000 years ago.

Are we just as willing today to align and test our symbols with reality? Are we willing to be open to change if necessary?

Just as the scientific community is essential to working and proving scientific theories so too must the wider Christian community be essential to our understanding and application of Scripture. Our ideas should pass the rules that everyone else is playing by. This is why the Christian community is essential. We are not to learn and live our faith blindly or lonely as if we are on some deserted island without need for critique and challenge from others. If something does not stand up, we should be willing to go back to the “lab” and see if what we thought worked still works.

If God chose to step down and align himself with reality in a way that made sense to the world, why should we not do the same?

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