Michael Ruse is, or at least claims to be, an atheist, and yet, for some odd reason, he continues to defend Christianity. Could it be that he represents a fifth column — a Christian disguised as an atheist whose purpose is to undermine atheism from within? He really should give up, since he is singularly unskilled and unprepared to do theology. The latest installment in his campaign to undermine unbelief is perhaps the clearest example yet of his egregious lack of theological proficiency. And, lest it be said that, since theology is about nothing, no one can be more or less skilled at doing it, it is clear that, despite its lack of content, theology can still be more or less skillfully done. It is still possible to be inconsistent, even in discourse which cannot, without exaggeration, claim to be about something. I know nothing at all about astrology, yet I am sure that, unskilled as I am in astrologists’ lingo, I could easily say something that contradicts the assumptions that astrologers make. In his new HuffPo article, Ruse manages this kind of failure in the realm of theology without any effort at all.
I need to ask the reader’s indulgence. Ruse’s new article on theology and science has already been competently addressed by Jerry Coyne, Ophelia Benson and Russell Blackford. As Ophelia so eloquently says (over at WEIT):
Oh hell there’s other stuff that bugs me. I’ll just have to do my own.
Blame Ruse, not me – he talks such a lot of nonsense that it takes several people to pin it all down.
And even though I had something else in mind for this morning, I think so too. Ruse, it seems, is multiply disabled when it comes to thinking clearly and sensibly about practically any topic, but especially about theology. I wonder sometimes how he achieved the status that he apparently possesses in the academic community. Being wrong so often in fairly elementary ways must be something of a disadvantage in a philosopher of science.
In his HuffPo piece, which is all about the Adam and Eve and how evolution has really shown that the Bible cannot be correct in assuming that all of humanity descended historically from a single couple, he says this:
Aristotle thought that some people were born to be slaves. He was wrong. St. Paul thought we are descended from Adam and Eve. He was wrong.
As Ophelia points out, there are two types of wrongness here. Aristotle and Paul were ”wrong in different ways, for different reasons.” And so they are. But whereas Ruse does not think it worthwhile to try to save the appearances for Aristotle, he does think it is important to show that, although Paul was simply wrong about “the descent of man” (to put it in Darwin’s terms), it is still important to suggest ways in which we can rescue Christianity from Paul’s error.
Why does Ruse want to do that? (As I write his name I am constantly reminded that Ruse himself thought it vital to inform us that his name is to be pronounced “roose” [to rhyme with 'goose'], and not “ruze” [to rhyme with 'ruse' -- in Webster's sense of "a wily subterfuge"], though the latter association may sometimes seem just as apt.) His motives seem unclear, which is a good reason to suggest that perhaps he does not himself know the reasons why. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that he still retains a good deal of respect for the religion of his childhood — if, in fact, he is not deceiving himself about his lack of religion. After I wrote that I searched around trying to find something about Ruse’s religious upbringing, and came upon this:
That explains Ruse’s defence of the benignity of liberal religion. It does not explain his support of William Dembski, nor his attempt to pull theology’s irons out of the fire.
So, what about Adam and Eve? Evolution clearly rules out the historical descent of humanity from a single couple. But can Christianity do without the Fall of Man and Original Sin? If there was no first sin which corrupted human nature, making it corrupt through-and-through so that there is nothing that humanity can do to redeem itself, thus demanding God’s act in sending his son to die for us, does Christianity still make sense?
According to Ruse, it can. He begins by reaffirming fundamental Christian doctrines:
The great British theologian John Henry Newman saw clearly that the essential truths of the Christian faith remain unchanged, but that, given new knowledge in each age, they need constant reinterpretation and updating.
God is creator, Jesus is his son who died on the cross for our sake, this act of sacrifice made possible our eternal salvation — these claims are unchanged.
Given that he claims that his Christian beliefs at some point in his life simply disappeared and have not returned, what does all this mean? Quite aside from the fact that Ruse says that what all this means is another question, what can it mean for him to say that these theological claims remain unchanged, or that Newman “saw clearly that the essential truths of the Christian faith remain unchanged”? If Ruse does not believe that these things are true, what does it mean for him to suggest that Newman saw that these truths are unchanged? Especially, as Ophelia points out, if these truths must be constantly reinterpreted. If X means Y at time t1, and Z at time t2 — where Y does not mean the same thing as Z – in what sense is truth being preserved?
That problem, in all conscience, is serious enough, but Ruse doesn’t stop there. He actually proposes an alternative to the myth of Adam and Eve and the Fall, a reinterpretation of the original “truth” proclaimed in the myth, a reinterpretation, he suggests that was always ready to hand in the Christian tradition in Irenaeus of Lyon’s Adversus Haereses. For we can interpret the Fall, he suggests, not as a fault that was inherited by subsequent generations, but as a symbol of the essential incompleteness of human nature. Listen:
Instead, [Irenaeus] interpreted original sin as part of our general incomplete nature, something that was completed by the Christian drama.
(That’s not actually true to Irenaeus, but let that pass.) In other words, God created us incomplete, and we have an obligation to complete ourselves — hence the importance of science. As Ruse says:
If we are made in the image of God (and Augustine was right here), then we have the power of reason and the ability to learn and understand the world that God created. We have the ability and the obligation.
What, if Ruse does not believe in God, does that parenthetical “and Augustine was right here” mean? But even if we indulge Ruse for a moment and allow that imponderable to pass, what, if we do “have the ability and the obligation,” was the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross about? Ruse cannot simply make up theology as he goes along, and insert something into the theological mix without thinking about its consistency with other elements of theology. Theology, even if it has no subject matter, still has to have some basic consistency; and even if, as Ruse says, Jesus is not “Plan B”, Christian theology can scarcely function if Jesus’ dying on the cross was not for something, and what Jesus is for has always been premised on the human inability to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, and the crucifixion and resurrection was supposed to tell us how God did it, how God actually acted to redeem humankind in spite of itself. But if there wasn’t anything from which we needed to be rescued — if we have the ability and the obligation to rescue ourselves – then Jesus’ suffering and death are just as pointless as any other human suffering.
The problem here is a failure to understand theology. Ruse ends up his HuffPo piece with a brief consideration of the relative standings of theology and science. Even though theology has been forced to shift its ground constantly in response to advances in science, this does not make theology inferior to science, according to Ruse, even if it is a one-way process. Science may not change in response to changes in theology, but this does not make science superior. Ruse does not say in what respect he is speaking of superiority and inferiority. He simply tells us that the changes of theology in response to science are part of theology. Well, yes they are. But what this shows is that theology is inferior as a way of knowing. If it really were a way of knowing, then any attempt to know the truth about reality would have to respond to discoveries in theology. The only reason theology ducks and dives in response to science is that truth is an obstacle to any attempt to suggest that reality is otherwise than it has been shown to be, which is why creationism is so silly, and so reminiscent of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.
Ruse may think that Jesus is a fine moral example, and that the ideas of love and compassion and concern for social justice that have come to be attached to the figure of Jesus represent significant moral progress. I happen to disagree that Jesus was a fine moral example. Augustine thought of Jesus in terms of love and compassion too, but that did not stop him from proposing quite brutal treatment of heretics. Indeed, that brutality is reflected in gospel accounts of Jesus. Reading through the Christian Bible it is significant that the idea of eternal torment does not make its appearance before Jesus.
There is some indication that Jewish thought was moving towards the idea of an afterlife, especially in the so-called “intertestamental period” (from roughly 420 BCE to the first century CE) in the story of the Maccabees, and particularly in the book of Wisdom, which was obviously influenced by Greek philosophical ideas of the survival of death and immortality. But hell and eternal torment make their first definitive appearance in the Christian Bible only with Jesus, which puts the lie to any claim that Jesus was the apotheosis of love and compassion. But even if this were not so, and Jesus could be held up as the first living example of someone who proclaimed love, compassion and social justice as the highest and best ends for human beings to pursue, it would not follow that even one of the theological claims made about Jesus is true. Nor would it follow that any theological theory or idea that preserves these values is necessarily consistent with the rest of Christian theology, or can be affirmed without delivering a mortal blow to Christian theology and all its presuppositions.