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Short version:

Coincidentally, in my last couple of sermons, I have been including reflections about “belief”.

Please, pretty please (with a cherry on top!) do not use “belief” to mean merely “I accept this to be correct”. Do not use “belief” as in “I believe that the planet Pluto exists” – say: “I accept that Pluto exists”, “I think that Pluto exists”. So many people mishear “I believe in Jesus” to mean “I accept that Jesus was a historical person” as if his historicity is questioned (except by extremist nutters). Some throw out accepting the historicity of Jesus when they stop “believing” in Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

The question for the videos was, “Should evolution be taught in schools?”. The constant refrain of “I (do or don’t) believe in evolution” is misusing/confusing “belief”. Evolution is a scientific theory, like the Theory of Relativity. Belief is about trust, about having confidence in, about giving my heart and life to. I believe in democracy. I believe in the All Blacks. I believe so and so loves me. I believe in Jesus. I believe in God….

Intelligent, well-educated people accept and understand that Jesus was a historical person. That is not “believing” in Jesus. Belief in Jesus is about entrusting myself to him. Belief is life-changing. Accepting that Pluto exists normally does not change one’s life.

ps. How many do you think of those representing each State of USA were unequivocal about a “yes” response? 2! Two!!! And before you start putting down education in USA, remember that evolution is not required to be taught in our NZ Curriculum!

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15 thoughts on “belief”

  1. Obviously, some (many?) of our schools are doing a poor job of teaching the meaning of ‘theory’ as well. I hope the rest of the world is better at this. No wonder understanding/acknowledging climate change is lagging in the U.S. with this weak grasp of how science is done.

  2. It’s not just a weak grasp of science – it’s also the decision to accept Biblical literal creationism as an article of faith, and the consequent inability to allow science to do what we, after all, designed it for. Thus science, rather than a method for discovering truths about the physical universe, seems to have become something that generates more or less vague ideas about what might have been – ideas which could be held as wrong if their truth becomes inconvenient.

    1. Matt, I do not have time currently to chase the quote of St Augustine where he specifically states how silly Christians look if they were to take the Genesis creation stories as historical!

  3. Thanks Fr. Bosco for posting this.

    Many of the viewpoints of the contestants evoked the face-palm reaction from me 🙂

    I agree with Val. “It’s just a theory,” belongs to the category of misnomer as, “Please step up to the podium.” What one likely means in each case respectively is, “It’s only a hypothesis,” and “Please step up to the lectern.” Besides being inaccurate, these misnomers sustain unnecessary ambiguity and foment confusion via the use of fallacy. To maintain the ambiguity, or the milieu of ignorance, for rhetorical and socio-political advantage is deceptive, cynical and Machiavellian.

    To understand the magnitude of difference between hypotheses (educated guesses stated in the form of predictions that can be tested in experiment) and theories (comprehensive explanations of important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time, and which remain open to verification or falsification) is that technology is based on theory. Every time one flies on an airplane one is betting one’s life on the theory of aerodynamics.

    It makes no difference whether one believes in, or even whether one accepts, the theory of aerodynamics (or in the theory of electronics in this exact instance here as I click submit and you load this webpage to read this), it is what leads to and sustains the technology of our post-modern world.

    So, evolution should be taught, as is, in science, without encumberance by pseudoscience, apologetics or rhetoric, which are sought to offered as legitimate counterpoints, when they are certainly not.

    Science is not without controversy. Scientists fight pitched battles over competing explanations of data, but they are competing on the fit of their models to the data, not by appeals to authority, or to fear, or to belief. Actual, non-pseudoscientific controversies in science should absolutely be taught as case studies (the emergence of quantum theory in response to the limitations of classical Newtonian physics is a commonly taught and apt process), so as to clarify the difference among models and data, e.g., atoms are not little solar systems. Students should be acquainted with the tentativeness of the scientific method. Just because one worked hard to learn the solar-system model in elementary school, it is important to learn that school-child certainty is not scientific, it is childlike.

    Creation narratives should be taught in religion, or literature, or social science, or perhaps not at all. Apologetics and rhetoric should be taught as techniques and pitfalls in writing, speech, logic and rhetoric.

    An interesting treatment of the function of narrative that has both authority, credibility and affiliation for a particular audience, for whom it functions as a paradigmatic truth is to found in Creationism and Evolution are Competing ‘Myths’ by Kelly E. Hayes on the website Religious Dispatches.


    1. Brian, my original intention had been to award them this week’s facepalm award as you suggest 🙂 But, in the end I’ve been rushing around a bit and didn’t get to it – so thanks! I’m of the opinion that the creation stories need to be taught and taught well if only to help people see what sort of genre has a domed universe, light days before the sun, and a talking snake… I’m quite happy to have beauty and composition of a painting taught in Art, the thickness of the paint measured in Physics, and the composition of the paint debated in Chemistry. I cannot get excited about the “controversy” – I also think in the end don’t we lose the belief that God has made me, and God made me by my parents having sex – just as God made the universe and did so through the Big Bang and evolution?

  4. God bless Miss Vermont for adducing an actual example of evolution in action (bacterial resistance).

    I strongly second your distinction between “belief” and “acceptation of a fact”, Bosco. As English-speaking Christians, it’s easy for us to get confused about this: when we say the Creeds, for example, English doesn’t help us to notice that we believe “unto” something in your sense of “giving my heart and life” to it (Credo in unum Deum, in plus accusative, which implies motion towards an object; same in Greek). The distinction is also clear in French: a Christian believes in God (Je crois en Dieu) in a different way from how a child accepts the existence of Santa Claus (Je crois au Père Noëel).

    On the specific question of teaching evolution in public/state schools, my own schooling (which was at a conservative Christian high school in Canada) fastidiously omitted the issue. In biology we concentrated on cell organelles, the Krebs cycle, and fetal pig dissection (though my geography teacher had us read some loopy stuff about “flood geology”). As an undergraduate at an American university, I took “Evolutionary Biology” to fulfil a science requirement. The first thing the professor said to us was: “Some of you may feel uncomfortable about this subject, so let me clarify something. Evolution is a proven fact; the origin of species is a theory. We have observed evolution in action in nature. We have not yet observed speciation, though there are some animal populations where we think we might be about to witness it. In this course we will concentrate on observed, demonstrable facts.”

    By the end of that course, the “facts” had absolutely persuaded me of the merits of the theory (has everyone read Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch?). But I wonder if I would have been so receptive if the professor had not made that initial gesture of sensitivity to his audience. And I worry that younger children would be put in an impossible position if they received a similarly persuasive and authoritative presentation of the subject in school, only to have their parents or pastors tell them it was an evil, atheistic position.

    In the current state of the American culture wars, evolution may be something best left for years of maturity. That seems to me a least-worst option, if the alternative is allowing the question to become a matter of mere dogmatic belief (as it is assumed to be by most of our Miss USA contestants).

    1. Thanks, Jesse, to continue your point about the creed, also lost in English: we give our heart & life to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the originals do not have the same for the church – we don’t give our heart & life to the church. We believe the church…

  5. Hmmm… I was under the impression that the “in” is actually found in the original conciliar text (eis mian … ekklesian).* Your interpretation of our liturgical textus receptus has an impeccable pedigree (Aquinas, S.Th. II-II, 1, 9). But sometimes I wonder if we ought not to be so pusillanimous about believing “in” the Church as something of divine origin to which we entrust ourselves (to the extent that it is Christ’s church, Christ’s body, God’s temple, animated by the Holy Spirit), even if we want to be careful about divinizing what the all-too-human Church itself says and does.

    *Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom I (1876), p. 28 n. 55 (who suggests that the “in” was later omitted in imitation of the Apostles’ Creed); Peter Jeffery, Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads “Liturgiam authenticam” (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), p. 20.

    1. Thank you, Jesse, you are perfectly correct. I was very naughty to reach for the Latin and not the original Greek. I also see value in what you are saying about entrusting ourselves to Christ’s body, while at the same time wanting to hold onto my insight that the church is in many ways a means (so much/all is of divine origin). Jesus seems to me to be particularly astute at distinguishing means and end – and it also seems to me not being clear about the difference is one way we get our lives into a tangle. So – I’m certainly not disagreeing with you, merely conversing.

  6. Conversing with you, Bosco, is always a treat. No one else in my house wants to talk with me about this stuff… 🙂

    And we liturgists need constantly to remember that the Church is a means, not an end. I recall seeing a video of an address by Metropolitan Jonah, the head of the Orthodox Church in America, who, having spoken about the importance of worship, said to his audience something like, “But Christ didn’t die so that we could have nice rituals.” (He went on to note the irony of that statement, coming as it did from the “High Priest” of a group whose rituals are the most elaborate in all of Christendom…)

    1. What a wonderful quote, Jesse! Understanding something as a means still means we can treat it with great respect and do our best with it. So I don’t at all see Metropolitan Jonah as demeaning.

  7. Here some of it is Bosco, from “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”:

    ‘Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.’

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