From the Gospel of Mark:

[Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 3:1-6 (NRSV) – March 15, 2014.)

Theory - You keep using that word . . . . . Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, is supposed to have said, “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over concepts. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.” I think that pretty much describes what is going on in today’s Gospel lesson, and pretty much describes what has become of conversation and discussion between groups in our society. The Pharisees and the Herodians, who disagreed with one another about nearly everything, could nonetheless come together and plot to kill Jesus because his words and actions threatened both of their conceptual frameworks. They had to defend their concepts against the wonder of healing, even if it meant killing.

A few days ago I had the thought that in the current debate (and I use the term advisedly and optimistically) between proponents of a scientific view of how the world got to be here and to be as it is (the champions, shall we say, of the theories of the “big bang” and of evolution) and the proponents of a religious view (the champions, shall we say, of the “young Earth creation” idea), the issue is one of language. It is a battle over concepts in which the two sides use language in ways the other doesn’t understand. They use the same words but use them with different meanings. They conceive of them differently and must defend their concepts to the death (of their perceived opponent).

For example, the word “theory” . . . . This word is used by scientists to mean an agreed upon explanation of some phenomenon, a description of the phenomenon which can be experimentally verified. Wikipedia offers this definition: “A well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method, and repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.” Those who champion a strictly religious view of creation, who insist on the accuracy of the Biblical account as factual (I’m not one of them, I hasten to add), hear the word differently. They hear the word “theory” and equate it to “hypothesis;” they hear the word “theoretical” and think “conjectural.” Theories are provisional, but they are not conjectural!

Or, on the other side (so to speak), the words “dogma” and “doctrine” . . . . In religion, a dogma is nothing more than a doctrine or a related set of doctrines relating to matters such as morality and faith set forth in an authoritative manner by a religious body. Doctrines are explanations; they attempt put into human language a definition or explanation of a spiritual or supernatural phenomenon. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, for example, seeks to explain the nature of God through the metaphor of the relationship between the Creator (Father), Jesus the incarnate Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Vedic doctrine of karma seeks to explain the ethical harmony and equilibrium of life. Doctrine and dogma occupy, in the realm of religion, the same place theories occupy in the realm of science. Theological doctrines are just as provisional as theories; as one theologian has said, they are “temporary resting places” on the journey toward understanding.

Now I’m going to get pilloried by some, I’m sure, for suggesting any sort of equation or even similarity between scientific theory and religious dogma. “Theories are not dogmatic,” will say some scientist. “Doctrines are not hypothetical,” will say some religious apologist. Both will be right, of course, and both will be wrong; both will be reacting in that manner precisely because of the way each hears and understands the words. And their understandings are different.

In their doctrines and their theories, religion and science are trying to conceptualize the wonder of universe. Like the Pharisees and Herodians watching Jesus heal the man with the withered, they refuse to simply say, “Wow!” Both want to nail down an explanation, their explanation, their concept, as the only way to perceive and understand the wonder.

We need to get past this barrier, the wall of theoretical doctrines and doctrinal theories, the barricade of concepts that prevents us from listening to one another. The Pharisees and the Herodians were able to do it, albeit for the negative purpose of killing Jesus; we ought to be able to do it for the more positive purpose of working together.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.