Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Opposite of Al-Kahzali

Ryan Bell's blog

A pastor, Ryan Bell, started a blog this year, titled “A Year a Without God”. Last year, he lost his job as a pastor due to his questions about the theology of his church. Since then he has been struggling with those questions, leading to this idea of spending a year NOT praying or looking to God for answers. On January 10th his entry was titled “What the…?”, expressing his surprise at the attention he was getting. Other entries express sincere feelings of doubt and an honest effort to deal with them.

1,000 years ago, another theologian Al-Kahzali, had similar doubts, but he took a different path. He was teaching the Muslim faith but he no longer felt he was being honest. He quit his job, abandoned his family and went on a spiritual journey. The details of that journey are scattered because he did it privately. When he returned, he claimed that he had found his god and that his journey was an experiment that proved that god was real. He went on to challenge the philosophers of his day. It destroyed many of the advances of science of reason that had been made.

Ryan’s journey is very different. He is being completely public. He is not challenging philosophers, he is reading them and commenting on them.

No matter what he learns, I don’t expect that it will end with the destruction of either religion or science in the 21st century. Neither of those options would be very good. 1,000 years ago, science and reason did not have strong support so knocking it down was not difficult. That would be a lot more difficult today. What failed then was the attempt to integrate religion INTO science. I don’t think that is possible. Science has made attempts to integrate into religion for as long as it has been around. That is more likely possible but religion will have to make some compromises. Ryan’s work seems to be trying to do just that.

What I mean by that is, if you say there are religious miracles, then you can’t take the scientific stance that everything has a natural explanation. If you rely on scientific evidence, then you can’t explain something only in terms of what God has done. If you require reasons to reach conclusions, then you can’t conclude anything for no reason. Religion relies on the individual experience of God and personal testimony about Him.

However, you can approach the natural world with awe and wonder at its size, its deep time, its immense energy and vast empty spaces. There is so much left to be explained that calling something a miracle is acceptable in the sense that something is as yet unexplained. You can posit any theory you like for the unknown, just don’t stop there, keep searching for the evidence of whatever it is you think is there. Creativity is always encouraged but all statements of fact need a consistent method for how they are established. These aspects of science are the community of science, the shared experiences that we can all participate in.

What Al-Kahzali came back with, he couldn’t share with others. He could only claim it. He could explain what he did and others could do the same and they may or may not achieve the same results. If you didn’t, you would be called an unbeliever. In his time, that could have dire consequences. The only test for a believer is that the believer says they believe. There is no way for certain to know if they believe or not or even know what they believe. If you can demonstrate what it is you believe, point to it, then it is a shared experience for all of us and no longer requires belief.

Science has always relied on a shared experience. If someone cannot repeat what you claim you did, it is not scientific fact. If you can’t explain it using consistent definitions and formulas, it is not scientific fact. If you can’t teach it to others, then test them to determine their understanding, it is not scientific fact.

But the unknown is still part of science. Searching for knowledge is part of science. Being inspired by nature is part of science. Understanding our place in the universe is part of science. Poetry, philosophy and ritual aren’t exactly part of science, but there is no reason that we can’t all share the same view of the mysteries. We are all looking at the same stars. Ryan Bell gets this, and I’m glad he is sharing his experience with the rest of us.