Saganic Verses

In this series, I am asking two questions.
(1) Which of the qualities that have at one time or another been identified as qualities of God are qualities of reality as a whole?
(2) May reality thus described reasonably be called "God"?

So far, I have looked only at the first question. In "Part 4: Which Is To Be Master?" I shall turn to the second question.

One of the qualities that is sometimes mentioned as a quality of God is “supernatural.” In part 1, I said that won’t work. The reason it won’t work is not that God/reality isn’t supernatural, but that we cannot make sense of either the proposition,
“Reality is supernatural”
or the proposition,
“Reality is not supernatural.”
Each of those propositions require us to be able to be able to draw a line between supernatural and natural – and we have no way to do that.

Another candidate for a quality of God is: person-like; having knowledge and desires. In part 2, I said that being able sometimes to respond to reality as if it had such person-like attributes is a part of a healthy playful or poetic capacity. It does our hearts good and fosters creative interrelationship with our world to play make-believe from time to time – even if we are self-aware that we’re playing as we do it.

Today I want to consider what would be left – or what would have room to emerge into greater significance -- if we set aside the supernatural and the person-like. What does science tell us about reality – and what descriptors of God apply to a description of reality consistent with science?

Let's begin with some parallels between science, particularly physics, and religion.

They both address the question: What is reality? That is, what’s out there? What’s right here? What’s in here? These are old questions. What we now call science – a particular method of hypothesis, and observation and replicability – emerged only in the 17th century.

What we call religion today – religion as the kind of thing that we could have a first amendment protecting the free exercise of – is also fairly recent. For most of human history, religion and culture were essentially the same thing. If you were an ancient Egyptian, then you did what Egyptians did – including participate in certain rituals, make certain sacrifices, and tell stories about beings called gods. They didn’t divide the practices and teachings of their lives into the religious ones and the nonreligious ones. It wasn’t until the 16th century that serious thought about tolerating religious differences began to emerge in the West, and, along with it, the implication that it was possible to separate certain practices from the rest of a given people’s way of being together. Now we live in a world where we have distinct areas called “science” (recently emerged as a distinct area of culture), and “religion” (recently separated into a distinct area of culture), each addressing that ancient question: What is reality?

For millennia, priests in dark robes have said:
"There is a world beyond what you can see or hear. It is a realm of deep mystery. The normal principles of nature as we experience it do not apply there. And: Trust us. We have plumbed some of this mystery, so believe what we tell you. Do not critically evaluate it for yourself."
Now scientists in white labcoats say:
"There is a world beyond what you can see or hear. Black holes, worm holes, antimatter, dark matter, quantum probability waves, superstrings, parallel universes. It is a realm of deep mystery. The normal principles of nature as we experience it do not apply there. Trust us. We have plumbed some of this mystery, so believe what we tell you.”
Actually, science teachers would love for us all to have a much better grasp on the data and the reasoning that leads to the conclusions of contemporary physics and astrophysics. But since most of us aren’t able to be physics majors on top of the rest of our life, we can’t critically evaluate cutting edge physics research. I, for instance, feel I’m doing really well if I grasp just some of the conclusions reached a century ago in Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Like this:

If you’re standing still, and I zip past you at half the speed of light, and I’m shining a flashlight ahead of me as I go, the speed of the flashlight-beam as you see it emanating from the flashlight is not the combination of our two forward velocities – it’s not 1.5 times the speed of light, as you might think. The beam leaves the flashlight at exactly the speed of light, and receives no boost from the fact that the flashlight itself is going half the speed of light. On the other hand, it might seem that if the flashlight-beam is going forward at the speed of light, and I’m going forward at half the speed of light, then the flashlight-beam is going faster than me by only half the speed of light. But no! I will see the beam receding on ahead of me at the full speed of light. How could that be? Well, it’s because time slows down for me when I’m going that fast.

At that point, most of us have to say, “If you say so.” Most of us can’t get the training to assess these mysteries ourselves, so we end up in a position analogous to our early ancestors’ position in relation to their shamans and priests: we have to take their word for it. Certainly there are significant differences. I trust my astronomy prof a lot more than I trust the TV and radio preachers of conservative Christianity. This is because the scientific community is self-critical and always looking for better answers while priestly communities are self-reinforcing and looking to maintain the same answers.

Nevertheless, scientists deal in things that are, to the rest of us, mysterious and arcane. Quantum mechanics is even more arcane than Einsteinian relativity. I turn to "Dr. Quantum" for a 5-minute sampling of one aspect of this baffling strangeness:

With Newton, and for a couple centuries after, physics was gradually making the world more and more clear and explicable. Or seemed to be. Since Einstein's publication of 1905, physics has been making our reality more and more mysterious and inexplicable. Or seems to be. As the purveyors of the arcane, physicists now occupy a spot analogous to the priests of old.

Having sketched some parallels between the cultural space occupied historically by the community of priests and occupied now by the community of physicists, we may turn now to some parallels between the universe, as described by physics, and God, as described by traditional theology. Both are:
  • profound mystery; 
  • origin; 
  • source of wonder, awe, and beauty; 
  • ultimate context inspiring humility and gratitude; 
  • grounding for ethical commitments. 
These are qualities associated with God, yet do not require being either supernatural or person-like. This is the reality that Carl Sagan called "Cosmos."  More than 30 years ago, Sagan’s PBS series, Cosmos first aired. Its 13 one-hour episodes captivated the minds and hearts and imaginations of a nation. It was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television and has since been broadcast in more than 60 countries and seen by over 600 million people. Carl Sagan (1934-1996) had an obvious passion for discovery, a poetry of wonder – and contacts among engineers who created for him special effects dazzling for the time. In 1980, the cold war was going strong. In a time of a nuclear arms race threatening planetary annihilation, Carl Sagan showed us a vision of another path. In this vision, deep engagement in the investigation of reality manifests and engenders a way of life thrilling and beautiful and also peaceful and just. As the first episode opens, Sagan is standing by the shore of an ocean. The camera pans, moves in, and Sagan begins:
"The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries. The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger. But our species is young, and curious, and brave. It shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
We’re about to begin a journey through the Cosmos. We’ll encounter galaxies and suns and planets; life and consciousness: coming into being, evolving, and perishing. Worlds of ice, and stars of diamond; atoms as massive as suns, and universes smaller than atoms. But it is also a story of our own planet and the plants and animals that share it with us. And, it’s a story about us: how we achieved our present understanding of Cosmos, how the Cosmos has shaped our evolution and our culture – and what our fate may be.
We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads. But to find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact. The Cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships, of the awesome machinery of nature. The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little way out, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows, this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
We ask, as our ancestors asked 100,000 years ago, what is reality? We want to be able to respond to it effectively, to get our needs met. Something in us would also like to reciprocate: to befriend the ultimate – space and time and all the
“gas and dust and stars – billions upon billions of stars” (Sagan).
We want to live in our world, our universe, in a way that is awake to its beauty, that evokes our gratitude, that shows us how very, very small we are so that, from such humility, we can loosen the bonds of ego defenses – yet which also gives us the significance of connection to something wider, bigger, grander. We want to know how to live in awe and wonder. For most of human history, we interpreted reality as person-like because brains built like ours are inclined to look for the traits of personhood: belief, desire, intentionality. We see others as having their own beliefs and desires, and this is crucial for interpreting their behavior and getting along with them. So it’s natural for us to look for beliefs and desires in the universe itself. And for millennia, we imagined that we found them there.

The most natural path to humility and gratitude for beings like us is to be grateful and humble toward some person-like entity. That’s the most natural path; it is not the only possible path. Four centuries ago, science was being born as one part of our culture, while religion was being separated from the rest of our culture and separated into its own part. In Cosmos, and throughout his life, Carl Sagan showed us, and embodied, a way to bring them together. Though others have pointed that direction before and after him, no one has done so as consistently and thoroughly. Sagan’s example showed us a way to be connected to a source for beauty, gratitude, humility, and wonder, a source that gives meaning to our lives and joy to our days and purpose to our work.

 We cannot all be professional scientists, but we can all be scientific in the sense of having respect for the scientific process, knowledge of the more significant findings, an interest in the general directions of current research, and an appreciation of the "big picture" unfolding through that research. Sagan showed us a way we can all be both scientific, in this sense, and also religious. Sagan's science and his religion did not conflict. Nor were they distinct areas irrelevant to each other. They were the same thing. The impulse that has led so many to embrace one dogma or another, just so we can believe we have some kind of handle on what’s out there – that same impulse can instead be directed to embrace a process. Instead of latching on to one set of beliefs, we can place our faith in a process of continually revising beliefs. Sagan said:
“We are born to delight in the world. We are taught to distinguish our preconceptions from the truth. Then new worlds are discovered as we decipher the mysteries of the Cosmos.”
Sagan recognized,
“We humans long to be connected to our origins, so we create rituals.”
He then added,
“Science is another way to express this longing – it also connects us with our origins.”
The textbooks and equations of physics are not inherently so inspiring. It takes scientist-poets like Sagan to show us that it is possible to weave the findings of astronomy and physics into a story that connects us to our origins, that, indeed, as he said,
“stirs us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height.”
Groups and communities can now take Sagan’s cue, and encourage one another in being inspired together by the vastness of space, the beauty of the galaxies, and the mind-boggling first millionth of a second after the big bang. Another function of religion is to ground and yield an ethic. To befriend our world, we need both a sense of what it is and how to be and act with it. Sagan’s Cosmos flowed seamlessly from the talk of atoms and stars to talk of right and justice:
“If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.”
He then spoke to us as the prophets of Judea of old spoke:
“Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice is clearly the universe or nothing.”
It is a function of religion to expresses and inform our loyalties and obligations beyond ourselves to something larger. Thus Sagan is speaking religiously in these concluding words of the 13th and final episode of Cosmos:
“Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”
Sagan avoids the word “God” – after all, he’s on PBS – yet when he says “Cosmos” he is pointing to a source, a connection to our origin, an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value, beauty and mystery. He is pointing to what humans have for millienia pointed to with the word “God” (or with non-English words that translate as the English word “God”). Is it fair to say that Sagan’s Cosmos is God, albeit neither supernatural nor personal? Or does the word “God” necessarily refer to a person-like entity? To this semantic, yet important, question I turn in the next and final part.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Science, God, and the Universe."
Next: Part 4: "Which Is To Be Master?"
Previous: Part 2: "Getting Personal"
Beginning: Part 1: "Not Supernatural"


Getting Personal

What is reality? And is the word "God" a useful way to talk about it? "God" has taken on so many different and even contradictory meanings that I sympathize with the impulse to drop the word entirely. In the end, I retain "God" in my vocabulary. So what do I take the word to mean?

"God" refers to reality as a whole. The concept of an entity within, and therefore less than, reality as a whole, is inadequate. Central to the conception of God in the monotheistic traditions as well as in pantheism and panentheism is that nothing is outside of God. The entirety of the universe may be the whole of God, or may be just a part of God. In either case, "reality as a whole" refers to all of it -- including the whole of God, howsoever infinite, extending beyond the universe or not.

Reality as a whole. Surely there must be more to "God" than merely "reality as a whole" -- for that definition makes atheism nihilistic and theism trivial (The atheist says, "There is no God," which would be saying, "There is no reality, taken as a whole," which is nihilism. The theist says, "There is a God," which would be saying, "There is reality," which is trivial.) Anyone who takes the atheist/theist distinction to be different from the nihilist/nonnihilist distinction, whether she self-identifies as "atheist" or "theist," will rightly insist that certain additional attributes beyond "reality as a whole" are essential to a definition of "God." The atheist then adds that those attributes are not instantiated in or by reality, while the theist maintains they are. My task, then, and yours, too, if you'll take it, is to articulate answers to two questions: (1) Which of the qualities that have at one time or another been identified as qualities of God are indeed qualities of reality as a whole? (2) May reality thus described reasonably be called "God"?

Taking up the first question, it might seem important to address whether reality as a whole is supernatural, contains supernatural elements or occasional supernatural events -- or, on the other hand, is reality entirely natural? However, as part 1 argued, the natural/supernatural distinction is one we cannot make. Trying to draw the line between "supernatural" and "natural" on the basis of explainability by natural laws fails.

Today I take up the more promising distinction between a "personal" and an "impersonal" God. When theologians speak of "Personal God," they mean a God that "can be related to as a person" (Wikipedia, "Personal God"). They don't mean "personal" in the sense of "just for me." A personal God isn't like a personal pan pizza. For clarity, I shall speak of a God who is "like a person" or "person-like" rather than "personal."

The key attributes of a person are having beliefs and desires. A person-like God would be one who believes and desires. Since God's beliefs would naturally be true, we may say a person-like God knows. A person-like God knows things and wants things.

The question, then, is: Does reality as a whole have knowledge? Does it want events to unfold in some ways and not in others? These are the keys to the broader question of whether reality as a whole can be related to as a person, for belief and desire do not reduce to each other, and from the combination of them come other person-like qualities, such as intention, disappointment, approval.

Can reality be related to as a person? Certainly it can. Sometimes it's even healthy to do so. Our relation with reality is impoverished if it doesn't also include poetic play.

- I have stood by my window during a thunderstorm, and, when the thunder crashed, found myself responding, "Well, you're angry this evening!"

- Bette Midler sings of a seed below the snow that "with the sun's love, in the spring, becomes the rose."

When we are doing science, we may set aside such notions as that storms express anger or that the sun expresses love, yet lives entirely without a capacity for a creative metaphorical relation with our world are severely attenuated (moreover, such a capacity is ultimately crucial even to science.)

Brains built like ours look for the signs of belief and desire. We interpret our fellow humans as having their own beliefs and desires, and this is crucial for interpreting their behavior and getting along with them. To become the fantastically social species that we humans are, we had to have brains adept at understanding each other's actions, what beliefs and what desires motivated those actions. With brains built, by genes and by social training, to interpret events as manifestations of belief and desire, we quite naturally look for beliefs and desires in the universe itself, in the weather and in trees, rivers, mountains, and the sky. We are built to anthropomorphize: to relate to things as if they were person-like, as if they had beliefs and desires. Our science and our religion both may have outgrown these animist conceptions of gods, but we still have the brains that find something satisfying and whole in relating to nature as if it were a person. To come joyfully into the fullness of our humanity, we shall not reject or scourge any part of who we are. There is a place for play, for creative metaphor, for poetry in our lives and in our relation to reality. In our "literal" fields of discourse today -- such as science journals and criminal trial courts -- it won't do to speak of the sun's radiation as love. But if there are not times in our lives when we craft and submit to poetic accounts of person-like qualities in nature, we are the worse for it.

The poetic is essential. It is not an obfuscation or a handicapping holdover. Rather, poetry clarifies experience, and is the ground of meaning-making. The comparison of the sun's radiation with love illuminates human experience of hope and springtime. It doesn't obfuscate. Quite the contrary, it makes clearer what was cloudy.

In the "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T. S. Eliot writes:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
It's certainly a challenging line, but it wouldn't be fair to say that it obfuscates. Obfuscates what? There is nothing that could more clearly say what this says -- indeed, that's why it's difficult to explain (to re-say in different words) what it says. There's loneliness, isolation, the burdens of responsibilities, and a certain irony (including an irony about the irony). At the same time there's a kind of celebration: of the lowly, the ragged, and of silence. There's the rhythm of the words -- and the hard sounds of G and D and C turning into the sibilant S's at the end. Nothing can say what it says except itself. Anything else would be at best an obfuscation of what the line directly and immediately presents.

We can -- and a full human life occasionally will -- relate to reality as if it were person-like. We do so creatively, playfully, and metaphorically. We also sometimes do the work that requires literalness. Every fresh new metaphor is a candidate for ossification, for becoming "literal" -- like a mouth of a river, neck of a bottle, or hands of a clock. Such discourses as physics or law are shot through with metaphors that have ossified into literality, and this is crucial, for they could not otherwise do the work they do.

Is reality person-like? Does God know things and want things? The answer must depend on what sort of conversation we are having. Are we playing? Are we reaching for words that will convey the experience of our hearts as we grapple with the death of a loved one, or hear the cardinal's song in early light of day?

Or are we trying to put together an account that will best facilitate prediction and control? Such an account is the aim of our sciences. Are we trying to put together an account of "what happened" that will facilitate the human enterprise of regulating our conduct together? Such an account is the aim of a criminal trial. In such accounts, the more ossified our metaphors, the better.

What I come to, then, is the conclusion that the "personal God" actually is, after all, "personal" in the sense of intimate, idiosyncratic, subjective, as well as in the sense of person-like. I may draw upon, as it seems helpful and personally meaningful, the traditions that speak of God knowing and wanting. When it's time to do work in the more literal areas of discourse and culture (such as administration, business, medicine, economics, politics, as well as science and law), I set aside personal conceptions of God. In those areas, I do not relate to reality as having knowledge or wants.
I recognize the role of playfulness, of creative and poetic play, in my own and others' spiritual lives. There are times to throw ourselves wholly into pretending that nature believes and desires. Such play helps align the deeper parts of our psyche with our world in a relationship of care, mutuality, growth, and joy. Such play reveals and embodies truths the literal mind cannot grasp or express.

Playfulness can also help us lighten the heaviness of an encrusted theology, preparing the way toward a more authentic -- and truly personal rather than merely received -- relation with our world.

Theological play and imaginative projections of personhood are legitimate and important. With that acknowledgment, I turn now to consider possibilities for "God" as neither supernatural nor person-like.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Science, God, and the Universe."
Next: Part 3: "Saganic Verses"
Beginning: Part 1: "Not Supernatural"


Not Supernatural

I wrestle with what to make of life and this world. One of the words that sometimes comes to mind as I grope to articulate something that will make sense and be helpful – and maybe even true – is “supernatural.” I have, from time to time, said such things as, "I don't conceive of God as supernatural." I say this to try to clarify. The word "God” seems too slippery, so I reach for "supernatural” to make my meaning clearer. This doesn't work. "Supernatural" fails to add meaning.

"Supernatural” (or "not supernatural") is also too slippery. How, exactly, are we to draw the line between natural and supernatural? My Random House Unabridged offers that “supernatural” is “unexplainable by natural law or phenomena.” Does that help? Alas, no.

Explainability is also too slippery. Have you noticed, for instance, that Newton was thin – nonexistent, really – on the explanation for his laws? Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, says Newton. And why do they stay in motion? We have no explanation. “That’s just the way things are,” says Newton. My sixth-grade science teacher said the same thing when I asked her. (Actually, Newton had a fancy Latin way of saying it: “Hypothesis non fingo” – meaning, “I make no guess about that.”) Inertia and gravity may be “natural laws”, but they are not explained by natural law. Are we then to conclude that they are supernatural forces? Perhaps we should call them “supernatural laws."

Inertia and gravity are so ordinary that it may strike you as bizarre or perverse to suggest that they are inexplicable. Very well, let us call them “explained” just by virtue of the widely shared subjective sense that no explanation feels called for. What shall we make of the weirder end of physics: wormholes and dark matter and quantum indeterminacy? We explain X by positing Y – and eventually arrive at a Y that we have no explanation for. Why, oh, Y? Not only that, but the principles of quantum indeterminacy tell us that some things not only are unexplained, but never could be. (Oddly, physicists have a good explanation for this permanent inexplicability.)

We are surrounded by and submerged in weirdness. Driven by an urge to feel we have some grasp on things, we seek explanations. And what is "an explanation"? If any story gives us a sense (illusion?) of having a grasp on something, we call it an “explanation.” We don’t have nonsubjective standards for what counts as an explanation.

Which means that we can’t tell what is “unexplainable” (by natural law or phenomena).

Which means that we can’t tell what is “supernatural” and what isn’t.

Which means that “supernatural” (and “not supernatural”) isn’t available for careful thinking about our conceptions of “God” or “reality.”

Which means . . . ?

It’s not so much that I’m back to the drawing board. It’s more like I never left it. I stand forever before this drawing board, erasing as fast as I draw on it.

And living in wonder.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Science, God, and the Universe"
Next: Part 2: "Getting Personal"
Part 3: "Saganic Verses"
Part 4: "Which Is To Be Master?"


Blogarhithmic Expressions: What Do Christians Know?

Blogarhithmic Expressions: What Do Christians Know?

Thoughtful Christian blogger Lyn Robbins (who I knew when he was an undergrad on the Baylor debate team while I was a graduate assistant on the Baylor debate coaching staff -- though I won't say I coached him since I learned more from him than he from me) is right to suggest that we sometimes interpret the gap between "believe" and "know" in a way that unduly mutes advocacy. To have a belief is to believe that it is true. In general, with few exceptions, to have a belief is also to believe it is justified. If it is justified and true and a belief, then it's knowledge. (This is Plato's long-standing definition of knowledge: justified true belief.) So if you believe it, then you think you know it: you think it's knowledge. If you don't think you know it, you don't believe it.

Of course, you could be wrong about what you believe (what you think you know) -- and this is true in any area of human belief. We could be wrong about a scientific belief (turns out Newton was wrong about some of what he believed about motion, and Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics). We could be wrong about a belief in a defendant's guilt (preponderance of evidence at trial may establish "proof" in some sense, but it isn't infallible proof -- as we have been recently reminded by reports of new DNA evidence exonerating prisoners convicted before DNA testing was available). We could also be wrong about our faith assertions. We can even be wrong about highly poetical assertions. (Imagine T.S. Eliot, toward the end of his life, saying, "I was wrong. It is not now and never was the case that I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas." It might be an interesting exercise to imagine a rationale by which Eliot would reach that conclusion. My point here is just that such a conclusion is comprehensible and possible.) We could be wrong about any of our beliefs -- and since "proof" is inherently fallible in any field of inquiry -- then proveability (or lack thereof) is irrelevant.

Lyn writes: "We are too quick to retreat to a position that says something like this: 'Faith is inherently unproveable. If it were a scientific formula, it would not be faith. Therefore, since we cannot prove matters of our faith in a laboratory or a courtroom, it would be presumptuous of us to say that we know them."

If "proof" means "infallibly establishes certainty" then there's no such thing -- not in laboratories, not in court rooms, and not in faith professions. And if "proof" means that we have some evidence and reasoning we can draw on in support of our claim, then there is proof in faith claims as well as in science and criminal law.

Acknowledgment that we could be wrong -- about ANYTHING -- is appropriate humility. It's not just, as Lyn says, that "It is impolitic to be certain of anything that smells religious." Rather, it is ultimately life-denying (for life means growth and change) to be too rigidly closed-minded on any subject, regardless of its smell. The practical realities of life, the overwhelming size of libraries and other sources of information, the smallness of our brains and the largeness of the number of our beliefs combine to mean that we will always have to take many of our beliefs "for granted": we haven't the world enough and time to investigate more than a small percentage of them in any detail. Still, there's a big difference between "practically off limits to revision for now, given my life's projects, purposes, and commitments" and "necessarily off limits to revision forever."

We don't have certainty. We do, however, have knowledge. I can believe something without certainty, but if I don't think I know it, then I don't believe it. How shall we conceive of knowledge in a way that doesn't imply certainty? The American Pragmatists (William James, John Dewey, et al) offer an epistemology that allows for having knowledge yet also allows for our knowledge to grow and change and that recognizes that nothing is exempt from the possibility of revision. Knowing is intimately tied to doing: knowing is effective doing. Ignorance, then, cashes out as ineffective doing. We act, and our action's effectiveness is the embodiment of what we know. One's knowledge is displayed in all one's doing. Religious knowledge, in particular, is manifest in a way of living, community connections, participation in rituals, values, an ethic, and the cultivation of such qualities as care, lovingkindness, compassion, justice, peace, and equanimity.

Still, there are two ways that we draw a distinction between "belief" and "knowledge" -- though the second is dubious.

(1) In talking about other people's beliefs. I meaningfully distinguish between what "Jo believes" and what "Jo knows" to reflect the distinction between "what Jo and I disagree on" and "what Jo and I agree on."

(2) In talking about my own beliefs when my uncertainty about them is particularly high -- that is, when I am hesitant to act on that belief except insofar as I might want to be taking the gamble.

In the second sort of case, what is at issue is more a pretend belief than a real belief. For example, I might say, "I believe that OJ killed Nicole, but I don't know it." I might say it, but I don't say it often. I live my life, as much as possible, in a 'no opinion' sort of way on that question, and will venture a belief-without-knowledge-claim only if pressed for my guess. It's more a pretend belief than a real one. In a similar way, Pascal's Wager asks us to believe there's a God without believing that we know there is a God -- thus drawing a divide between one's own belief and one's own (believed) knowledge. And that's why the argument of Pascal's wager is so unsatisfying: What we want in matters of faith (as in matters of science, criminal law, etc.) are beliefs that are real beliefs (that are believed to be justified and true and therefore constitute knowledge) rather than the sort of "pretend beliefs" that Pascal's argument recommends.


I also appreciate Lyn's distinction between hope and wishing. His favorite quote, he says, is Peter Kuzmic:
"Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future; faith is the courage to dance to it today." 
Nice. What hope is NOT is the ego's desire for the world to be different from how it is. That's what Lyn calls "wishing." My own favorite quote on the subject of hope is from Vaclav Havel: "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the understanding that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

In sum. Christians have knowledge-claims and truth-claims to make. I think some forms of some of the claims of some self-identified Christians are false -- but Lyn's right that Christians might as well be willing to say that they're claiming knowledge and truth. He's also right to remind them to be polite about so claiming.