Fr. Brian Harrison’s Bomb Shelter

Fr. Brian Harrison complains about “Bomb-Shelter Theology”:

Those who anxiously whittle down and attenuate the traditional Catholic faith to the point where it includes no affirmations whatever about physical, material realities (such as conception, virginity, crucified corpses, the earth, sun, stars, etc.), on the grounds that such matters fall within the competence of “science,” do a very good job of what they set out to do: their theological bomb-shelter is indeed impregnable against any possible bomb which might be launched by physicists, geologists, historians, etc. No such missile could ever damage that kind of “faith,” any more than a cloud can be damaged by firing a shot-gun at it: there is nothing solid there with which the shot might possibly collide. Nevertheless, if the Catholic Church ever came to adopt, or even officially permit, this scientifically-ever-so-respectable theology, her rational credibility would suffer death by the “asphyxiation” of self-contradiction. Let us see why this is the case.

The Roman Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is scrupulously kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner. This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent: that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

For the credibility of an investigator and that of a witness have to be judged according to very different criteria. An investigator only need avoid self-contradiction in what he says at any given time. Provided he does that, he may – and indeed, should – contradict what he said only yesterday, if he happens to have found new evidence overnight that his previous view was mistaken. But a witness in a court of law is subject to more exacting requirements. Unlike the investigator, he is asking us to believe certain things on the strength of his word, not on the basis of publicly available data which the rest of us can inspect and evaluate for ourselves. He is asking us to trust him as a reliable source of information which is otherwise inaccessible to the rest of us. This means that in order for him to be credible in the claims he makes, he must avoid not only contradicting himself while under cross-examination today; he must also avoid contradicting today what he said yesterday -or the day before. Once he gives his clear, emphatic, sworn testimony to something, he must forever stick by it, and be able to defend it, on pain of destroying his whole credibility. Now, things like creeds and dogmas and solemn papal or conciliar definitions are the emphatic “sworn testimony” of the Catholic Church in bearing witness to the truth of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ and in the natural moral law. So are those doctrines which, even though not defined in such specific documents, have been taught by a solid consensus of Popes and Catholic Bishops round the world as being “definitively to be held.”

This analogy should help us to see the folly of those modern theologians and exegetes who think it admissible to indulge in “bomb-shelter” theology to the extent of discarding or “re-interpreting” those definitively taught doctrines from our Catholic heritage which they feel are – or even might be in future – vulnerable to scientific bombardment. Because they are imitating the investigative mentality of the merely human disciplines (“let’s be humbly willing to correct our mistakes”), they can enjoy a superficial aura of intellectual sophistication and respectability, especially if (as usually happens) these scholars work in a university environment. What they fail to realize is that, precisely from the standpoint of intellectual credibility, this “pick-and-choose Catholicism,” which clings to scientifically “untouchable” doctrines while surrendering the scientifically “vulnerable” ones, is simply laughable. If the Church were an unreliable witness on any one definitive doctrine – a “sworn statement” – then there would be no justification for continuing to believe any of the rest. If it were true that science could demonstrate the falsity of one or more such doctrines, the intelligent response would not be to “correct,” “reinterpret,” or otherwise patch up those particular doctrines, while continuing to preach and teach the rest as though nothing had happened. The intelligent response would be that which has in fact been chosen by such ex-theologians as Charles Davis and Anthony Kenny (but not, for instance, by Hans Küng): complete abandonment of the Catholic Church. Outright apostasy can at times have a certain amount of intellectual integrity and coherence about it; mere heresy is always intellectually bankrupt.

Fr. Harrison seems to be saying something like this: Catholics only believe in Catholic doctrine because they believe that the Church is trustworthy. If the Church ever “committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way” to something, and that thing turned out to be false, then the Church would not be trustworthy. Therefore there would be no reason for anyone to believe any of its doctrines.

Fr. Harrison continues:

There are many theologians today who speak as though revelation deals only with transcendent mysteries that are quite beyond the reach of human science or reason. But in fact the Church’s two-thousand-year witness includes “sworn testimony” not only to `intangible´ mysteries such as the Trinity, the Real Presence, Grace, the Redemptive value of Christ’s death, life after death, and so on, but also to “solid” truths in a more or less literal sense: those involving physical matter existing on this earth in time and space. The Church has insistently proclaimed as revealed truth, for instance, that Jesus was conceived in His Mother’s womb while she was yet a virgin, and that His mortal remains were raised to life in His resurrection. As both Vatican Councils affirm, revelation includes not only the completely transcendent truths, but also others “which in themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason” but which for many people would in fact be difficult to ascertain by their own unaided reason. Thanks to their inclusion in revelation, however, such truths “can, in the present condition of the human race, be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty, and without the contamination of error.”

In his work, The Science of Historical Theology,  Msgr. John F. McCarthy has emphasized the importance of these revealed truths which are also accessible to reason – or at least, to some people’s reason -and in particular those such as we have already mentioned, which belong to the field of history. As he says, they can be described as “revealed history,” or “past revealed reality.” The virginal conception of Our Lord, for instance, is a historical fact which is accessible to most of us only through revelation. (Indeed, it was accessible to the natural reason of only one person, Our Lady herself. Mary knew, without any help from revelation, that she had never had intercourse with any man and yet was pregnant. St. Joseph and all the rest of us needed a revelation from on high to guarantee such an extraordinary fact.)

Today’s fashionable bomb-shelter theology, however, in what might be called an overreaction to the Galileo case, refuses to accept the idea of “revealed history.” One such theologian of my acquaintance scoffed at such a concept as an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. According to him, if a truth is revealed, then by definition it cannot be historical, and vice versa. And he appealed to Vatican II’s teaching on the “rightful autonomy of science” (which here means “science” in a broad sense to cover history as well as the physical sciences) in order to justify his position. He pointed out that in this passage the Council rebukes those Christians who neglect this autonomy. Such believers, it says, “have occasioned conflict and controversy and have misled many into opposing faith and science.”

This theologian’s thinking went more or less as follows: “We churchmen burnt our fingers badly over the Galileo case. We went right out on a limb by making statements that were open to scrutiny from the human sciences: statements about concrete, empirically observable things and facts in time and space. And what happened? The limb was rudely chopped off! We were shot down in flames! Then we were almost shot down again when some of us tried to argue with what turned out to be the scientific fact of evolution. Now at last, with Vatican II, we’ve learned our lesson. From now on, theology cannot afford to present as revealed truth any kinds of propositions which, now or in future, might come up for scrutiny by the human sciences – history, biology, astronomy, geology, or whatever. All such propositions come under the jurisdiction of these sciences, and belong to their area of “rightful autonomy.” The Church must stick to ethical statements, and truths which are completely supernatural: the kind which no human science could even investigate. That which science cannot in principle even touch, it can certainly never disprove!”

In other words – according to this approach – the task of showing the harmony between faith and reason should now be carried out by sorting through our inherited doctrinal baggage and classifying its contents according to subject-matter. Those which make statements (especially controversial ones) involving historical and physical realities (e.g. dead bodies or the conception of babies) can now be discarded as excess baggage. We are to leave them lying above ground, as it were, where they will be exposed to possible bombing-raids on the part of the historical or physical sciences. If they never actually get hit, well and good. But if they do, it doesn’t matter. They are expendable, negotiable. Meanwhile, we will gather up the remaining doctrines – the purely transcendent or supernatural ones we have received from our Catholic heritage – and scurry off with this “survival kit” to an underground bunker with a sign on the door saying “revealed truth.” Here, in our theological bomb-shelter, our faith will be utterly impregnable from all possible scientific explosions.

But this line of defence against the accusation that faith is unreasonable will not work at all. In the first place, it is clear that Vatican II cannot mean by the “rightful autonomy of science” the idea that revelation, by definition, can never include any statements of a “scientific” (i.e. physical/historical) nature. That would make the Council contradict itself. Gaudium et Spes cannot be read as contradicting Dei Verbum, which, as we have seen, repeats the teaching of Vatican I that some revealed truths are also truths in principle accessible to unaided reason. (In fact, the Council even gave a specific example of such truth: the textual history of the first sentence in Dei Verbum, §19, shows that it was carefully drafted so as to maintain that the historicity of the Gospels is a truth which is both revealed and accessible to unaided reason.) In rebuking Christians who do not respect the “rightful autonomy” of science, Vatican II did not mean there cannot in principle be any such thing as a revealed physical/historical fact; rather, it means that we must make very sure (by means of a careful exegesis of Scripture and careful survey of what has been said by the Church Fathers and Magisterium) that a given historical/physical proposition really is revealed, before we go asserting it as such to all the world. The Council had in mind here the Galileo case specifically. But even assuming that Galileo’s inquisitors were scientifically wrong (and there are now – since the 1970s – some Catholic and Protestant scholars with PhD’s in physics and astronomy who maintain that they were scientifically right, i.e., that geocentrism is the truth) their error was not in supposing that if the Bible makes assertions about physical reality, these must be accepted as revealed truth (a supposition which they did indeed make – and very rightly). Rather, their error lay in faulty exegesis: in supposing that the Bible does in fact assert a particular physical proposition (geocentrism) which it does not really assert. We have to say that that was the error which led them to trespass unwittingly into the autonomous domain of science.

After some additional discussion, he concludes the section:

It should be clear by now why this kind of dogged persistence in sticking by what we have said for two millennia is not “triumphalism,” pride, obscurantism, or mere “fear of change.” It does not harm the Church’s rational credibility at the bar of reason, as bomb-shelter theologians imagine, but is essential precisely in order to save it from the manifest irrationality of their own “solution.” A witness, in contrast to an investigator, cannot afford to “correct” serious mistakes, because he cannot afford to admit ever having made them! Imagine a witness in a court of law who finds himself embarrassed by the contrary evidence of a certain Miss A., or by that of several other witnesses in regard to his activities on a certain date at Village X. And imagine the response if the witness tries to get out of his difficulty by asking the court to continue believing only certain areas or sections of what he had previously sworn emphatically under oath: “Yes, well, what I said about Miss A. wasn’t really too accurate, I guess. But I assure you that what I said about Mr. B and Mrs. C is God’s truth! And as regards what I said about what happened at Village X on April 15, you’d best forget that. But you can take my word for it – scout’s honor! – that on April 16 I spent the whole day at Village Y, just as I said before!”

Nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything. He has destroyed himself. And neither will any intelligent agnostic (the type of “modern man” for whom an attenuated, “demythologized,” bomb-shelter theology hopes to make the faith more credible) take the Church’s word for anything, if she retracts her previous emphatic “sworn testimony” on even one important point. If the Church could be wrong in proclaiming for two thousand years (in the teeth of rationalistic opposition, ancient and modern) that Jesus’ dead body was raised to life on the third day, why should anyone in his right senses regard her as trustworthy when she keeps on proclaiming that there are three Persons in one God, or that we are destined for heavenly glory after death?

Here, then, we see the basic error of bomb-shelter theology. It is so intent on guarding the faith from all possible attacks from the “bombs” of the secular scholarly disciplines that it unwittingly prods the Church toward a suicidal self-contradiction. In its excessive preoccupation with appearing “respectable” in the sight of the physical and historical sciences, it unconsciously flouts the first principle of the even more fundamental science of logic.

Bomb-shelter theology, as defined by Fr. Harrison, would attempt to make only statements which cannot ever have any empirical consequences. This is in fact absurd, although not exactly for the reasons that he gives. The main problem is that if it has no empirical consequences at all, it cannot have any evidence in favor of it. But any statement that people make has evidence in favor of it, and therefore it cannot avoid having some empirical implications.

However, one can make sure that those implications do not vary much from the implications of opposing theories, and this is more precisely what people actually do when they engage in this project. This has problems as well, although it is not absurd, as it is to say that one’s statements have no empirical implications at all. The main problem here is that to the extent that you make the implications match the implications of opposing theories, you reduce the amount of evidence which is left in favor of your theory. In the end, the probability of your theory will be close to its prior probability according to your implied prior probability distribution. But for many or most religious claims, this prior probability cannot be very high, and so, at least in many cases, there will be little reason to think that the claim is true.

Nonetheless, there are serious problems with Fr. Harrison’s response to this idea. Fr. Harrison claims that after a person has perjured himself, “nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything.” This is not true even in real courtrooms, where for example people are sometimes believed about various things even after they have falsely accused other people, or falsely confessed to a crime themselves.

But it were true in real courtrooms, this would be because the person has been proved to be a liar. If it were simply proved that a person had made a mistake, that would not mean that no one would trust him about anything else. If 90% of the things a person says are true, and 10% are false, then if you take one at random, there is a 90% chance it is true, even after you notice that 10% of the things that he says are false.

Let’s look again at one of his opening paragraphs:

The Roman Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is scrupulously kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner. This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent: that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

There is an error here very similar to the error of Kurt Wise. If the Church ever commits herself to something in a “thoroughgoing or definitive way,” and then admits that it was wrong about that thing, he says, then we will know that the Church was wrong in its claim “to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years.”

Just as Wise was implicitly assuming that he was personally absolutely certain that Scripture is inconsistent with evolution, Fr. Harrison is implicitly assuming personal certainty about something here.

In the first place, what does it mean to say that the Church committed itself to something in a “thoroughgoing or definitive way”? Does it mean the Church said, “This doctrine is true, and if it turns out to be false, then all of the teachings of the Church are false?” It is doubtful the Church has ever said such a thing, or ever would say such a thing. And even if it did, Harrison’s argument would not follow, since if the Church could be wrong about the doctrine, it could also be wrong in claiming that all of its other teachings would be false.

More likely he means to say that the Church teaches something in a definitive way if it claims as much certainty as the Church can have. “This doctrine is true, and there are no doctrines about which the Church is more certain.” Again, Fr. Harrison’s argument would not follow. If the Church can be mistaken in its most certain doctrines, that does not necessarily mean that all of them are false, just as said above about someone who is right 90% of the time. It simply means that the Church does not possess absolute certainty.

It could mean, however, that the Church is making that very claim: “There is a 100% chance that this doctrine is true and no possibility of it being in error.” Again, however, Fr. Harrison’s argument would not follow. If the Church made such a claim and turned out to be wrong, this would simply mean that the Church was wrong not only about the doctrine, but also about its ability to have absolute certainty about it. It would not follow that it possessed no truth at all.

Basically Fr. Harrison is assuming in advance that he knows that either the Church can have and does have absolute certainty about various things, or that there is no truth in the Church at all. But there is nothing necessary about this in principle.

In a second part of the essay, he sets out a syllogism with which he says that certain theologians conclude that the opening chapters of Genesis are not historical in genre:

  • Major – All Scripture (including Genesis 1-3) is inspired by God, and is therefore without error in all that the writers intended to assert.
  • Minor – Science has demonstrated that Genesis 1-3, understood as a factual, historical account of how the world and man began, would be in error.
  • Concl. – Therefore the author(s) of Genesis 1-3 did not intend to assert in these chapters a factual, historical account of how the world and man began.

He then criticizes this using a parable:

Consider this little parable. In a certain far-off land the dominant religion includes the dogma that on the dark side of the moon there are large craters full of salt water. Comes the twentieth century and space-travel. Rocket-ships finally get to photograph all angles of the moon, including the dark side. The believers are cast into deep anguish and a crisis of faith by the terrible news that, while the new photographs indeed show plenty of craters, all of them are bone-dry! At first there is a reaction of rejection. The hierarchy assures the faithful that the photographs are all faked, as part of a Satanic plot. As time goes on, however, this becomes hard to sustain, since some astronauts of hitherto unquestioned orthodoxy themselves take part in a space-flight to the moon and see for themselves the faith-shattering emptiness of those great craters, reporting this sad news to their brethren on return.

Many of the faithful leave the Church in disillusionment; but for others, faith does not remain shattered for very long. The more learned theologians soon come up with a “bomb-shelter” solution which satisfies well-educated, sophisticated believers. It can be set out in another syllogism.

  • Major – It is revealed truth that there are salt-water craters on the dark side of the moon.
  • Minor – Science has demonstrated that no water of any sort is observed in the craters on the dark side of the moon.
  • Concl. – Therefore there is invisible salt-water in the craters on the dark side of the moon.

This eminently reasonable solution comes to be accepted by the bulk of the faithful, because after all, it is logical (the conclusion follows ineluctably from the premises); it is orthodox (the traditional dogma is faithfully preserved); and by accepting the minor premise, this revised faith is perfectly in line with the latest developments in science. Armed (and comforted) by this modern development in doctrine, the guardians of the new orthodoxy can afford to shake their heads condescendingly at the tiny minority of fundamentalists, who, in their naive literalism, regard the new theology as nonsense and continue to insist on the hypothesis of hoax and fraud in all the photographs and testimonies regarding the craters. These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible. The only perplexing thing for the more enlightened believers is that the great bulk of their contemporaries seem to agree with the fundamentalists on this last point. The new theology, designed especially to make faith more credible for modern scientific man, seems to hold little attraction for him. The churches keep on emptying, as a greater consensus grows outside the Church that there is, quite simply, no water of any sort on the dark side of the moon.

What lesson, then, can be learnt from this comparison? Somebody will say that my imaginary syllogism is a mere caricature of the very real and currently respectable one regarding Genesis. And perhaps some non-Catholic reader will say that I seem to be very free in throwing stones for one who himself lives in a glass house: who am I to go laughing at a belief in “invisible water” when I and all orthodox Catholics profess a firm belief in the invisible Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist?

But I am not laughing at a belief in “invisible water” as such. If the conclusion to my second syllogism raised any sort of a smile on your lips, dear reader, then ask yourself why it did so. After all, suppose I had begun my tale by saying, “Once upon a time there was a tribe that venerated water as the source of all life. One of the mysteries handed down from their ancestors was that a certain sacred shrine contained an ancient phial which, as far as human eyes could see, was quite empty, but which in fact contained a sacred, supernatural water – the source and well-spring of all earthly water.” I suspect this would have elicited very few guffaws. You might have thought, “Well, they were pretty superstitious tribesmen. Anyway, what next? If this is a joke, I’m waiting for the punchline.” Whereas when you read the Conclusion to my syllogism about the moon-water, you immediately knew it was the punchline of a joke.

And that is precisely the point. What makes the “invisible water” laughable in the syllogism is the fact that it comes at the end, and not at the beginning. One expects religions to have mysteries, but normally they are traditional mysteries, handed down from what are (or at least, what believers understand to be) the authoritative, foundational sources of the religion itself. (This of course is the case with Catholic belief in the Eucharistic Presence.) But in our parable of the moon-water, its invisibility is a brand-new “mystery,” which no believer (or unbeliever) has ever heard of before! It pops up out of nowhere at the end of a syllogism. And it springs, moreover, not from some kind of organic or logical development based on the religion’s own doctrinal and spiritual patrimony; rather, it is forced abruptly upon the believers by a minor premise coming from an outside source which is coldly indifferent – even irreverent – toward these sacred sources: the merciless glare of empirical observation. The real incongruity in the situation, of course, is that the learned theologians are engaging in sophistry in accepting this new “development,” while the “stupid” fundamentalists (like the faithless bulk of their ordinary fellow-citizens) have enough common-sense to see that the whole thing is completely “phoney,” even if they might not be able to explain in an abstract way where the fallacy lies. As in the old fable, it takes the simplicity of a child to see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

It is not in fact as easy as one might think to give an abstract exposition of this common-sense insight; but perhaps the basic grievance of the poor fundamentalist gives us the clue. For the reason we have already given, his major complaint with the new theology of moon-water – and a very reasonable one it is – will not so much be its intrinsic implausibility (his faith may well already include other marvels as wondrous as invisible water), but rather, “Why didn’t we ever hear before now that the moon-water was invisible? And anyway, since when were we supposed to learn our religion from astronauts rather than from the gods?” Reflecting on these naive, but very pertinent questions, we can perhaps formulate the following principle:

If, in a syllogism wherein the truth of at least one premise is not immediately obvious, the Conclusion: (a) is not itself true in any obvious way; (b) is the sort of proposition which, if true, is normally reached by quite different methods of inquiry from those of the syllogism; and (c) has never been, and is not now, supported by any evidence from those methods proper to it, or by any other evidence independent of the Major and Minor of the syllogism; – then in that case it is gratuitous and unscientific to affirm that Conclusion as true. Rather, it should be presumed that one (or perhaps both) of the premises which entail such a groundless assertion must be false.

In the case of our parable, the Conclusion fulfilled condition (a), because the assertion that invisible water exists is by no means obviously true. It fulfilled condition (b), because it is the kind of proposition which, if true, would normally have to be proposed as a supernatural mystery, backed up by some pretty convincing and well-attested miracles on the part of the one proposing it. This is not, however, the way in which the sect’s theologians arrived at their “new mystery.” And it fulfills condition (c), because the founding fathers or prophets of the religion never so much as hinted that the moon-water might turn out to be invisible. Nor has any new prophet appeared declaring that the invisible water is indeed there, and backing up his claim with some astounding prodigies. And finally, there is not a shred of evidence from any other independent source for the truth of the conclusion.

(There could conceivably be such evidence, of course. We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing-craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground-level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see! With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp) – it’s (glug) – SALTY!!” For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all. The only moon-water believers who seem slightly embarrassed in the midst of this spectacular triumph are the more radically progressive bomb-shelter theologians, who have for years been teaching the new generation of clergy not to be so naive as to anticipate this kind of outcome from the long-awaited crater-landing. It had become axiomatic in such sophisticated circles that moon-water is to be understood as not only invisible, but also intangible.)

Once again, certain readers may object that while some people might find this all very diverting, there is no serious point to it all. After all, am I not just caricaturing responsible modern theology by my syllogism about the moon-water? Well, only in that its Major premise is clearly a lot more implausible than that of the first syllogism (i.e., the divine inspiration of the Bible), so as to make the point more clearly. But I am seriously maintaining that the reasoning process which leads today’s respectable Christian theologians to postulate a “non-literal,” or “non-factual,” literary genre for the Genesis creation accounts is every bit as invalid and unscientific as that which led our “moonies” to revise their theology in such a startling way. They produced a brand-new mystery unsupported by any appropriate evidence: invisible water. And our learned men since the middle of the last century have also produced a brand-new mystery, unsupported by any appropriate evidence: an invisible literary genre.

However, our real-life situation regarding Genesis seems to me more desperate. A century and a half after the existence of a “non-historical” literary genre for Genesis 1-3 was suddenly “deduced” from the studies (not in Hebrew literature, mind you, but in geology and biology) of scholars such as Lyell and Darwin, our exegetes are still looking for it. One recalls here the status of the planet Pluto in the late 1920s: astronomers had deduced that it “must” be out there before they actually spotted it with telescopes. Since their deduction was based on methods proper to the discovery of heavenly bodies, it is not too surprising that they found what they were looking for in short order (in 1930, to be precise). And since our deduction about the existence of a “non-factual” literary genre in Genesis 1-3 was not based on methods even remotely connected with literary criticism, it is also unsurprising that we have not found what we are looking for, even after more than a century of searching. Unsurprising – and also unreassuring as regards any reasonable prospect that the search might one day be successful. Since all appropriate literary methods have so far failed to identify the creation accounts as belonging to any known “non-historical” genre (such as poetry, drama, apocalypse, fiction, midrash, allegory, parable, etc.), and since the field of literature (unlike that of nature) now contains very little unexplored territory, then it might be time to recognize honestly that this genre which just “has to” be there is one which is permanently undiscoverable by any method at all which human ingenuity can devise! In terms of the parable, our “water” has failed not only the visibility test, but also the tangibility test. For us, not only the crater photographs, but also the crater landing-craft, have failed to discover that “water” which we believe “must” be there. This is why I say that our fantasy syllogism about the moon-water, far from caricaturing the real-life syllogism about science and Genesis, is actually too gentle with it! Today’s new “orthodoxy” regarding the literary genre of Genesis 1-3 is in fact more ridiculous than the “new interpretation” of moon-water produced in the moonies’ hour of crisis. They felt obliged to postulate the reality of invisible water; our most respected Catholic theologians have for decade after decade felt obliged to postulate an invisible and intangible literary genre for the Genesis creation accounts.

Fr. Harrison’s “principle” that “If, in a syllogism wherein the truth of at least one premise is not immediately obvious etc” is false. This should be obvious from the ad hoc method with which he came up with it in order to refute the syllogism concerning Genesis. But in any case, it would be easy enough to give examples where he would not deny that the conclusion is true, despite matching his principle. For example, using the methods of Gödel’s theorems, one can construct an equation which has no solution in the integers, and which cannot be proven by the methods of arithmetic to have no solution. One proves that it has no solution with a quite different method. It can easily be seen that this will violate his principle, unless we groundlessly assert that it has solutions nonetheless.

However, he is correctly recognizing that a syllogism “goes both ways” in terms of evidence. If the premises would ensure that the conclusion is true, then the improbability of the conclusion is evidence against the truth of the premises. The claim about the invisible moon water does indeed seem improbable, and this argues that for the likelihood that one or both of the premises is false. And the same thing is true about the argument about Genesis. To the degree that you think it unlikely that Genesis could have such a genre, you should think that it is likely that one or both of the premises in that syllogism are false.

And this is the real issue for Fr. Harrison. The conclusion of the Genesis syllogism seems improbable to him. And to the extent that this is true, this means that one of the premises is probably false. But we wouldn’t form the syllogism in the first place unless we thought that science has shown something about the origins of man and the world. This suggests that the false premise is the major premise. And Fr. Harrison doesn’t like this conclusion. Consequently he would prefer to think that science has not shown anything about the origins of man and the world.

As we have seen, religious views often have semi-political motivations. We can see this in Fr. Harrison’s parable: “For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all.” The terminology of victory and defeat indicates this kind of motivation. Someone who wanted to know the truth would not be defeated if his error was corrected, but he would be attaining the truth, which was after all his goal. Thus Socrates says in the Gorgias, “And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.” We can see the same thing in the questions, “Why didn’t we ever hear before now that the moon-water was invisible? And anyway, since when were we supposed to learn our religion from astronauts rather than from the gods?” To the degree that someone is interested in the truth, learning something new is not an issue, nor does it matter from whom it comes.

Objecting to “bomb-shelter theology,” Fr. Harrison is building himself another kind of bomb shelter. If he conceded that the Church was somewhat mistaken about various things it has said in the past, in principle it would still be possible that there is divine truth in the Church, as I said in the first part. But given that situation, Fr. Harrison would feel that it is probable that there is no such truth at all in the Church. And likewise, if Fr. Harrison accepted the minor premise, he would feel that it is likely that the major premise is false. By asserting that science has established nothing about human origins, it seems to him that he is asserting something which is overall more likely to be true. In his parable, he says, “These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible.” Here his intention is to defend this kind of theology, but it in fact really is a “narrow, fortress mentality.” And not simply because one should allow for the possibility of growth, but also because one should allow for the possibility that one’s whole religion is indeed indefensible.

Apart from all this, Fr. Harrison is making a mistake similar to that of Kurt Wise in a second way. Just as Wise was mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1, Fr. Harrison is mistaken about it in more or less the same way. We have already seen that Genesis 1 is not about the order of time, but about the order of matter and form. And inasmuch as this interpretation was already suggested by St. Augustine, he is also mistaken in speaking of this as an “invisible genre” which does not previously appear in Christian tradition.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Fr. Brian Harrison’s Bomb Shelter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s