Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Imaginative or Afraid?

I’ve been reading through John Arthur Smith’s Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, so far a fascinating and engaging read. Mr. Smith does have a few moments of skepticism which I do not share (his reluctance to trust 1 & 2 Chronicles for 1st Temple history being the most significant), but otherwise I am finding his history to be sound. However, it appears that he sometimes finds his own work, perhaps, a little too sound. This causes him to give this odd caveat in the preface:

It is sometimes the case that the traditional view of a given sacred concept, event or ritual, handed down to believers over many centuries, is at variance with the view presented by the bald evidence of the sources. There are examples in this present book. But such disparity does not have to mean that one view must exclude the other. Both the ability to believe what cannot be scientifically proved and the ability to reason purely by logic are part of the balance of opposites that go to make up human nature. If this be accepted, it should also be possible to accept that two different views of a concept, event or ritual—one a product of traditional belief, the other a product of scientific enquiry—can exist side by side in equilibrium. It is not part of the aim of this book either to de-mythologize traditional beliefs for which there is no scientific proof, or to preach. (xix)

As both a preacher and a logic teacher, I found this paragraph puzzling. What exactly is it supposed to mean? “At variance with” is vague enough to prevent any hard conclusions, but “bald evidence” suggests something rather compelling. The general connotation is that Mr. Smith’s logical, rational, and historical studies have resulted in findings which do not agree with some parts of sacred tradition. He doesn’t quite say “contradict,” but one certainly that is implied. And so let me preach for a moment, but about logic.

If two ideas contradict one another, then both cannot be true. One must be true, and the other must be false. If they are contrary, then both could be false, but both could not be true. If neither of these is actually the case, then the “variance” is not a rational problem at all, and we are just dealing with an apparent contraction, something that can be resolved with clarity, more information, and patience. In the case of contrariety and contradiction, however, one cannot reasonably hold both positions, not even if in supposed “tension.” The tension, in that case, would actually be between rational thought and irrational thought, or as is so often the case, between one’s sentiment and one’s conscience. In this case, what is needed is clear thinking and courage. There’s really no larger riddle to this dilemma.

In the case of apparent contradiction, then what is needed is both imagination and explanation. A resolution is possible, and its possibility can at least be explained, if not fully proven. In this case, one is still being quite reasonable to extend belief, and he may indeed have many good reasons to do so.

But in no case is it possible or desirable to acknowledge irrationality and to continue in it. Mr. Smith does not recommend this, but his half-hearted caveat could  certainly give off such an impression. My first reading of it left me thinking that he had actually disproven certain time-honored beliefs, but that he wanted to assure the reader that they could continue to hold those beliefs if they really wanted to. This move is something of a pervasive problem across intellectual Christianity in our own day, part of what we at TCI refer to as the retreat to commitment. Christian Humanists cannot settle for it, for it is actually not a rational solution.

Of course, this does not mean that one must abandon their beliefs at the first challenge. There are plenty of occasions where one goes through a period of doubt only to emerge more convinced, but this must always be the result of a solution, of the overcoming of the doubt through sound reason. This may well take time. It may take the form of a pursuit. But at least with an ongoing project, there is still the rationale character demanding coherency and consistency.

What Mr. Smith should have said was that there was not enough compelling evidence to abandon traditional thought, that there were more possible options yet unexplored, or that certain traditional views were, in fact, wrong. His reluctance to take one of these stands was telling and a bit disappointing.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.