Taylor: Seeking alternate routes to truth

I suppose I take a scientific approach to religion. I’m not willing to follow blindly in the footsteps of Augustine or…Teilhard de Chardin.

I learned something last week. I am not a follower. At least, not a docile follower.

To put that into context, I spent last week in my annual hiking trip into the Canadian Rockies. A volunteer organization, the Skyline Hikers of the Canadian Rockies, organizes five week-long hiking camps every summer. They provide the tents, the meals, and the horses that carry in most of the campers’ personal gear. The hikers themselves carry day packs—cameras, binoculars, lunches, and the necessary emergency clothing in case of sudden mountain weather changes.

During their week in the back country, completely cut off from both vehicular and electronic traffic, hikers get a choice of up to six hikes every day, ranging in length from 10 to 20 kilometres, with a designated leader.

I discovered that no matter what route the leader chose, I tended to look for an alternate.

I didn’t challenge the general direction of a hike. I had, after all, signed up to go to that particular place. But whenever the leader had to make a judgement—for example, finding a route through a swampy section—I rarely followed meekly in the leader’s footsteps.

I found my own ways of sinking into deep mud.

Or of choosing a different set of rocks for crossing a stream. Or perhaps a different path through a mountain meadow bright with alpine wildflowers. Even just seeking a different viewpoint for a spectacular series of waterfalls.

Sometimes my choices worked better than the leader’s. Sometimes they didn’t. But—if I may put this as a double negative—I was not content not to know.

I think I take a similar approach to religion.

About a year ago, an Australian correspondent argued that the difference between science and religion is that science constantly seeks to prove a theory wrong, or inadequate, so that it can be superseded by a newer and more comprehensive theory. Thus traditional physics gives way to quantum physics; traditional measurement to relativity; traditional forecasting to chaos theory.

When science propounds a theory, other scientists immediately test it. In replicating the experiment or process, they explore details that might invalidate the original conclusions.

Religion, the writer contended, takes the opposite approach. Once organized religion establishes a doctrine, it will deliberately reject any development that might require it to reconsider that doctrine. It would rather defend its current understanding than seek newer understandings.

There’s some historical validity to that claim. Most of the great Councils of the early Christian church were called to exclude schools of thought that threatened the established order. Gnosticism, Arianism, Manicheanism, Nestorianism—all were declared heresies, “anathema,” an extreme religious sanction.

If that Australian writer is correct, I suppose I take a scientific approach to religion. I’m not willing to follow blindly in the footsteps of Augustine or Alfred North Whitehead, or Martin Luther or Teilhard de Chardin. If their reasoning corresponds with my experience, so much the better.

But if it leads me into a mud hole, I will look for some alternate route that makes better sense of the situation as I experience it.