I’ve been talking about Satan, demons and other primitive, pre-scientific sorts of things here. The topic has reminded me how odd it is that labeling ancient ideas that way—”primitive,” “outdated,” and the like—tilts us toward counting them as wrong or worthless. Usually that has to do with their having preceded the Dawn of Science, which leads to the other great oddity, which is that this tilt happens even with ideas that have nothing to do with science.
C.S. Lewis spoke more than once of the silliness of thinking what counts is how “modern” or “up-to-date” an idea is, as if that alone could determine how true it is. Labels like “primitive” have emotional rather than true rational power. They serve nicely as tools for cutting off old but currently unpopular ideas. We forget that the man in the cave was more of an artist than we give him credit for, and that means he was likely more of a thinker, too.
That’s not to deny the real progress that follows from “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Newton put it. Ideas build fruitfully upon ideas, so that over the course of generations our knowledge increases. Somehow, though, we’ve come to think that only science has tall men supporting it, and that the great prophets of Judaism and Christianity, Jesus included, were but primitive pygmies: highly influential but ultimately wrong, as we modern, enlightened ones now know.
Aside from minor corrections we’ve made along the way, however (see my first article in this series), what science has taught us about the natural world has had almost nothing to do with what might or might not be true about reality beyond nature. Dawkins and others of his ilk might think it does, but for the most part they are using pro-science sentiment as a cover for anti-theistic prejudice.
InThe Blind Watchmaker, for example, Dawkins says that since science can explain how the biological world could have come to be without a designer, there is therefore no designer. Even if his evolutionary premises were correct (feel free to take your choice on that one), the conclusion wouldn’t begin to follow. It’s as if he thought the only reason anyone believed in God was to explain the origin of species; but if that’s all he sees when he looks at Christianity, he’s standing on the shoulders of a bucket in a well. Lawrence Krauss represents another case of bucket-vision when he says science requires a kind of practical atheism. It’s just not true, and no one who understands Christianity could think that it is.
The ancients were not stupid. There are foolish and ignorant people in every generation—we have our share of them today—but the best men and women of old were at least as wise as the best of today. Maybe they had less information to work with than we have—Aristotle’s Physics would have looked a lot different had it been written it after Newton (though not necessarily as different as some might think)—and yet, is it not possible that in some cases their information was better than ours? What if the prophets were standing on shoulders much taller than any of Newton’s giants, when they spoke of what they saw concerning worship, justice, worship, goodness, truth, and yes, even what was to come? What if (to alter the metaphor) they were seeing through lenses the Creator himself crafted for seeing the truth?
Perhaps you think that’s all preposterous. You’re entitled to think so; but if you think it’s preposterous just because the prophets all lived such a long time ago, that’s where your entitlement runs out. Later is not necessarily better.
Suppose it was your intention to understand contemporary currents in cosmology. Would you rather consult Stephen Hawking or Popular Science? Obviously you would prefer to be closer to the source. Now suppose you wanted to know exactly what Herodotus wrote in his Histories. Would you rather have access to the manuscripts he himself wrote (if it were possible), or to the Kindle version? Again, it’s better to be closer to the source. If Herodotus’s autographs (original manuscripts) were available, they would have absolute authority over all later versions. For representing the author’s own work, nothing in the passage of time could produce any improvement.* For some things later is worse, not better.
So with that in mind, what if there were an authoritative source of information on the spiritual world, and that source delivered a major portion of its information a couple thousand years ago? If it were true then that God existed, and angels and demons too, why would it be any less true after the Dawn—or even the Noontime—of Science?
That is, of course, an open-ended sort of what-if question, and for now I’m going to leave it at that. I said last time that I was going to move on toward providing positive reasons for believing, without irrationality that Satan and demons exist and influence the world we live in. I have not gotten there quite yet. There is so much prejudice against this belief, I thought it important to spend at least one more article on turning our thoughts in a more rational direction. Next time (if I’m not interrupted by my own thoughts one more time) I intend to show why there can be merit in believing the ancients knew something real and true about reality, and about spiritual battle in particular.
*One might argue that if the original were damaged, contemporary science might help us recover the original, and that some future science might help even more. One might also argue that better science could provide better assurance that the manuscript before us was Herodotus’s own. But for the question, What did Herodotus write? the point remains: the closer we get to the ancient source, the better we can answer the question. Herodotus’s first readers—ancient, primitive readers, that is—would have been far wiser on this particular question than we could ever hope to be.
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