Settled Truth

Last Sunday the topic of suicide came up — something my family has experienced first hand. In some variants of Christianity suicide is an ‘unforgivable sin’ — one that even God can’t forgive. (Really?) Never mind considerations of mental illness or duress so severe the person wasn’t capable of a reasoned choice. But beyond that — what about the soldier in war who throws himself onto a grenade to save his comrades — is that suicide? Or better: how about Jesus Himself, KNOWING He would be killed if he went to Jerusalem, yet He went anyway — how isn’t that suicide in slow motion? And yet that Act on His part is the cornerstone of Christianity. Clearly a simple dogma like “all suicide is unforgivable" isn’t nearly nuanced enough to account for the messiness of Real Life.

Suspect dogmas like this played no small part in the rise of the Enlightenment around 1750 – “theologizing isn’t working so well; instead the Scientific Method can finally give us Settled Truth." But that’s not so either: all Science is provisional, ready to be overturned by the next experiment. The history of astronomy provides a good example: Ptolemy (100-170) and his system of epicycles (circles within circles) worked well enough for mariners to navigate the Mediterranean Sea for 1500 years. Then telescopes were invented around 1600, and for the first time people like Galileo (1564-1642) were able to observe discrepancies between the Ptolemaic system and what they could see with their telescopes. This culminated in Newton (1642-1727), whose new theory spectacularly accounted for astronomical observations to date. But telescopes and other astronomical devices continued to improve, and discrepancies between Newton’s system and observations were discovered (for example, Newton’s theory didn’t predict Mercury’s orbit very well) and along came Einstein (1879-1955). Ptolemy was Settled Science for over 1500 years, Newton for almost 230 years, Einstein for a little over 100 years so far.

And although Science has magnificently shown us how to manipulate the physical world, it is completely silent about how to put that knowledge to use. Science, strictly speaking, is indifferent whether we put Science to use inventing Zyklon B (the gas the Nazis used in their extermination camps) and thermonuclear weapons — versus penicillin and solar panels. There is no ’wisdom’ in Science for how to live individually or collectively, or HOW to put Science to use. For that we must turn to metaphysics, and we’re right back to Religion of some sort – even if that ‘religion’ is Hedonism (“eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die").

But I digress. ‘Scientific Truth’ is provisional because our tools for measurement continue to improve, and we accumulate more data and more ideas in that domain of thought. I’m not so sure “Theological Truth" is any different: our understanding will ever be limited yet hopefully improves over time, we accumulate more Life experience individually and collectively, and each generation of thinkers adds new ideas to our theological understanding.

But whatever the domain of human endeavor, it seems to me that characteristics of the best among us include humility – "I could be wrong", and thoughtfulness – "the simple answer is probably wanting."