Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sullivan vs. Harris

Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris debate if anyone can rationally hold religious beliefs. Harris says no, while Sullivan says yes. Readers of this blog know that I am certainly partial to Sullivan's position and I think that Andrew makes a strong case for belief in both religion and logic.

Without trying to jump too much into the middle of this debate, it seems that Harris' downfall here is trying to make the perfect the enemy of the good. In his latest post Harris states:
The bottom line is that this pope, and all his predecessors (and you, apparently) believe that the Bible is a magic book: that it was not authored by human beings, however brilliant, but by some supernatural force.
This just is not the case as the following quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear. Paragraphs 80 - 82 of the Catechism illustrates the relationship between sacred scripture and apostolic tradition:

One common source. . .
"Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal." Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own "always, to the close of the age".
. . . two distinct modes of transmission
"Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit."
"And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching."
As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."

So this "magic book" not the sole basis for the Church's beliefs. For this reason the faithful must constantly struggle to interpret scriptures in a search for truth. We must constantly try to rectify scripture with tradition and our own experience. Paragraphs 107 - 110 describe the nature of sacred scripture and how Christians should use sacred scripture to augment their beliefs:
The inspired books teach the truth. "Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures."
Still, the Christian faith is not a "religion of the book." Christianity is the religion of the "Word" of God, a word which is "not a written and mute word, but the Word is incarnate and living". If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the
eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, "open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures."
In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.
In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. "For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in
prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression."

The Catechism goes on to describe the various methods that the faithful should use to interpret scripture. This of course goes to the heart of Harris' misunderstanding of faith, especially the type of faith, which I profess. We must base our faith not only on scripture but on the entire tradition of the church. This tradition, if completely captured in writing, would encompass an entire library and run into the millions of pages. Our current cannon, was an attempt by men, guided by the holy spirit, some 1700 years ago to distill that tradition into a manageable volume that contained the truth as they saw it. This human effort, while perhaps not foreseeing moral breakthroughs like the end of slavery, gave us a book which continues to inform us about the truth and made those breakthroughs possible.

I doubt that Andrew will ever convince Sam of the merits of Christianity through this debate, but he can certainly help to fortify the beliefs of his fellow Christians in an age where vivid fabric of moderate belief seems torn between one dimensional atheism and fundamentalism.

Good Luck Andrew!

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