Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Come And See

For a faith that is assumed to deal mostly with intangibles, Christianity is unusually empiricist. I am struck by the frequency with which characters in the Bible are exhorted to "come and see" — that is, to make themselves physically present in order to observe a specific phenomenon.

More than that, the concept of controlled testing is not alien to the book either. In the first chapter of Daniel, the eponymous author proposes a clinical trial (well, not double-blind, but a simple one) in which he and his friends will eat a vegetarian diet for ten days and then be compared to the rest of the cohort in terms of fitness to serve in the king's court. Later, King Nebuchadnezzar very cleverly demands that his dream-interpreting sorcerers and diviners should tell him the contents of his dream first before they interpret it. Only Daniel passes this test.

It's interesting to see also Elijah's test on Mount Carmel, where he demands that his sacrifice be wet down with water three times, the water overflowing into a trench, before calling down fire from heaven. The precision of the resulting strike is now a matter of legend, and the consequences to his opponents proportionately dire.

One verse that is often quoted out of context is: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." That kind of testing is the test of provocation, not the test of hypothesis; it is the kind of testing we imply when we say, "Do not test my patience." The God of the Bible doesn't otherwise seem to mind having his power being tested for a specific reason.

Generally, the many tests of power in the Bible are rooted in results — a test is proposed with a result that allows falsification (i.e. proof that the assertion tested is false). It is thus no wonder that early scientists like Galileo and Newton were able to investigate the natural world without seeing conflict with their faith (although they might have cut it fine with their nominal co-religionists).

To this day, just as with science, two kinds of tests remain in everything Christian — the test of reason and the test of findings. If hermeneutic reasoning shows an assertion to be theologically unreasonable, or if the findings of an empirical test show an assertion to be false, the penalty used to be death by stoning or the sword. In this supposedly more enlightened age, we have a much, much more tolerant response to false prophets and other snake-oil salesmen of various persuasions.

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