Ockham’s Razor

We finish our discussion on the spiritual realm making another attempt to explain why the spiritual realm of saints and angels is no longer meaningful or real to so many Western Christians. What I have to say here has a long history in our culture ranging back to the 14th century philosopher William of Ockham (died 1340). He was what we might call a proto-rationalist. He was not a deistic or atheistic rationalist like we find in Voltaire and the 18the century rationalists, for he believed in the doctrines of the Church and was a Christian. However, he did not believe that we can apply reason to things of faith, therefore beginning the split between faith and reason. In this way he is a precursor to Kant and a very influential theologian who came out of the German pietistic tradition named Schleiermacher who believed that it is our personal experience of religion that is important, and that reason belongs more properly to historical studies and the hard sciences than to theology. This, of course, moves easily into modern existentialism that rejects any theological formulations, such as the Christian Creeds, as relevant to humanity in general at all. Can you see this in our culture? This is relativism, and it snuck into our culture with the split of faith and reason.

Ockham is famous for his theory that the simplest way to explain the nature of things is always preferable to a more complex model. This is a simplified form of what is now called “Ockham’s razor.” The word “razor” is employed to demonstrate that anything at all that seems superfluous can and must be shaved off for simplicity’s sake. William of Ockham lived in a time of scholasticism, and admittedly, there were extravagant flights of fancy in some theological constructions, a famous one being the question, “how many angels can dance on the point of a needle?” (I am not sure this was, in fact, a serious question at the time, but no doubt such things were debated.) The legitimate question to ask here is whether our reason and theological construction can be applied to the spiritual realm. In reaction to scholastic abuse the West decided against this. What has happened over time is that in the west the cultural drift is to believe that nothing universal can be said about spiritual realities. We might believe by faith that there are spiritual realities, but the less said about them the better.

In our discussion of cosmology, we can see why so many Western Christians simply have no room for a spiritual realm of saints and angels that intersects with our material world. All of this simply does not belong to our cultural way of thinking. There are no channels in our minds to take us there. It is simpler to believe with Scripture that there is a heaven out there with God and His angels, but it is absolutely separate from this world. This is Ockham’s razor in action shaving off anything not deemed necessary. It is clean and neat. This methodology dictates to us what we see and what we do not see in Scripture. The multitude of references to angels in the Bible is virtually ignored. The cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12 is dismissed lightly as mere poetic language. The saints die and their souls are shoveled off into some holding place near Jesus in utter transcendence.

The question to ask, however, is whether our cosmology is truly Biblical. How much is our cosmology affected by the culture that we live? Like a fish in water, all of us are submerged in rationalism and Ockham’s though (called nominalism) without even studying these things, yet they are mother’s milk to us. Do we want to make the effort to question our presuppositions about our world view? Are we satisfied with our understanding? It takes a huge amount of time and effort to venture out into the exploration of another world view. If we are comfortable with the way things are we will not do this. But comfort is not where Jesus would have us be; nobody ever felt comfortable around Jesus because he was always challenging people with regard to how they viewed the world and reality.

Let me end with a quote from Abraham Heschel concerning the changing of a world view. “Indeed, it requires much effort to learn which questions should be asked and which claims must not be entertained. What impairs our sight are habits of seeing as well as the mental concomitants of seeing. Our sight is suffused with knowing, instead of feeling painfully the lack of knowing what we see. The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know … Insight is breakthrough, requiring much intellectual dismantling and dislocation” (The Prophets, vol. I, Introduction, pp. xi-xii).

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