Contra Dennett III: Mystery

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

If we consider the history of Christianity, however, we begin to see the inadequacy of Dennett’s story.  Christianity embraces a number of paradoxical beliefs—the Trinity, the Incarnation, and (for Catholics) transubstantiation—beliefs Dennett would no doubt regard as absurd.

The problem for Dennett’s story about religious evolution, however, is that Christianity has again and again been faced with easy outs from these paradoxes.  The early Church could easily have adopted any one of a number of theological proposals less paradoxical and easier, on the surface, to believe than the Trinity or the Incarnation.  The Church could have dropped Christ’s divinity or his humanity; it could have treated Jesus as a super-angel instead of the incarnate Deity.  Regarding the difficulty of believing in transubstantiation, the Catholic Church could have declared the Eucharist a mere symbol, removing the paradox, deflecting the charge of absurdity.

But in each of these cases, the Church chose the harder belief; she embraced the mystery, the paradox, rather than attempt to resolve it away.  Dennett hurts his credibility when he asserts that “we have moved beyond” the Old Testament God, with all the difficulties the Old Testament entails, because Christianity had the opportunity to “move beyond” the Old Testament when it faced Marcion in the second century.  But instead the Church chose the harder path.  (Dennett seems to believe that the theologians of earlier times never really noticed the difficulties, demonstrating an historical ignorance—and arrogance—that is simply colossal.)

What all these examples demonstrate is that Dennett’s notion of how mystery functions in Christianity is false.  It is not an intellectual crutch used by theologians to escape from difficult arguments.  Instead it has always served to make their arguments more difficult, yet for some reason the Church has embraced this difficulty.

A glance at the libraries that could be filled with the debates about the Trinity alone shows that the invocation of mystery has hardly shut down discussion.  Augustine, Aquinas, Rahner, Barth, von Balthasar all took the idea that the Trinity is a mystery as an invitation to question and probe deeper, rather than give up.  Mystery, properly understood, is an invitation, not a bar, to inquiry.  In fact, when theologians talk about mystery they are always saying what Dennett claims to be arguing for in Breaking the Spell:  that we need to do more research.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in fact, speaks of God’s mysteriousness as a positive characteristic, something that is brought to light by revelation.  For von Balthasar, mystery is a function of God’s infinite self-giving love.  Von Balthasar does not speak of God’s mysteriousness as if it were the result of human deficiency, our inability to comprehend (though that does, in my view, play into things).  Instead, he argues that, because God’s love is infinite, our understanding of that love will never be complete; there will always be more of God to discover.  God’s mysteriousness is an invitation into infinite discovery, infinite exploration, not a casting aside of reason.

In a somewhat different, though not necessarily incompatible, vein, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Kierkegaard, among others, tie our knowledge of God to our growth in relationship with him.  Our knowledge of God can never be complete because to claim that it is would be to close the possibility of further personal growth.  In this way of looking at things, asserting God’s mysteriousness is another way of asserting the possibility of continual—perhaps even infinite—human growth.

What Christian mystery does assert, and what Dennett no doubt finds troubling, is that there are some aspects of our existence about which our knowledge will never be complete.  This assertion does not mean we should not continue to explore and seek to understand areas of mystery, but it does mean that such exploration will never really end.  Theologians will have to have the humility to admit that they will never write the definitive book on the Trinity; there will always be more to say.

Such humility contrasts with what evolutionary psychologist Justin L. Barrett describes as “scientism,” a belief we can recognize in Dennett’s work.  As Barrett puts it:

Our faith in the sciences has spawned scientism, a worldview dedicated to the notion that science ultimately can answer all questions and solve all problems.  Though science cannot really explain why the universe is fine-tuned to support intelligent life or why we should behave morally, perhaps someday it will.

Dennett invokes his own version of mystery when defending the creed of scientism.  He admits that his theories are provisional and inadequate but assumes that all unanswered questions about religion will be revealed once we have done more research (especially if that research assumes from the beginning that only material phenomena are real).  The difference between Dennett and the theologian who embraces mystery is that the theologian admits that as we explore life’s most profound and vexing existential realities, we will uncover more questions along with more answers.  In Dennett’s materialist eschaton all will be quantifiable.

Since by now you, dear reader, might be a little tired of Dennett (or perhaps a little tired of me!), I thought I’d end this series with a rather better view of the relationship between faith and reason:  the words Pope Benedict used to end his speech on the subject at Regensburg.  There’s a rebuke there for people like Dennett—but also for us Christians if we become tired of all the frustrating debate and discussion required from a creed that embraces mystery.

I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being – but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.” The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

AL, SJ

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4 Responses to Contra Dennett III: Mystery

  1. Peter Wolczuk says:

    So, Mr. Dennett seems to think that “Mystery” is a “trump card”, “talisman” or, if I may add, cop out does he?
    I also agree that it may be so at times, however is it all the time? Does Mr. Dennett feel the same whenever a scientist declines to produce a theory before completing research and trumps, invokes talisman or cops out with the term “insufficient data”? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference to me between the two. Both are a very honest and realistic form of humility where a person admits that there isn’t enough information for them to understand. The scientist may hope to understand at some point and I, for one, admit that the Mysteries are beyond my ability to understand. Is a scientist an approved person to use such rigourously honest humility and a Christian not? Could qualification to use such a tool decided on some valid standard, on a university degree in the hard sciences, prejudice of the one deciding, or …….something else?
    One thing that I like very much about the Mysteries is that; while it is within human ability to understand the ways and nature of atheists, medical professionals, lawyers, military groups and other aspects and beings of this world; I do not believe that it is within human ability to understand the Mysteries.
    So, who has more potential to help me in time of trouble? Someone, or some group, that is so limited as to be within the realm of human understanding or, Someone who is infinitely beyond that?
    I will make my decision based on God’s infinite nature and help at time of Salvation (which has already been put in place during the sacrifice and the passion at Calvary) and others can choose to do as they wish.
    Free will and all that.

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    Saluti, Anton! As an addendum to your well-written post, I’d like to say that today’s atheists are laughibly contradictory on the issue of mystery; take for example the “big bang’. There is no real proof or even evidence for it, save a mathmatical equation based on the perceived rate of expansion of galaxies. in essence, this is the scientific equivalent of a San tribeman seeing an car for the first time accelerating down the highway at 50MPH, then hypothesizing that a) said car has simply always existed in some form b) he can identify its point of origin simply by monitoring its rate of acceleration as it whizzed past. In other words, there are many mysteries that atheists have all too quickly replaced with theories, yet equating them with fact.

  3. Can I say for the record that I love the fact that Benedict quoted Plato at Regensburg? Because I do.

  4. […] noted at the beginning of my series on the “new atheists” (Contra Dennett 1, 2, and 3) that Pope Paul VI entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission of combating atheism in the […]

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