Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology? (was: natural theology, bad and good)

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Thu May 14 2009 - 02:11:55 EDT

George:

You've asked a fair question, and I'll try to give you a (doubtless unsatisfying) answer, but first, I want to make sure that my main point is understood.

My main point (which doesn't depend at all on my own theological inclinations, but comes from my historical reading and my training as a religion scholar) is that "Christianity" is a big, blanket term for a complex of historical traditions, doctrines, practices, cultures, etc. Even if you limit it to those traditions which accept, say, the Nicene Creed, it is vast. As you've admitted, Nicene Trinitarians vary quite widely on the question of natural theology, and as you know, they vary widely on a range of other important issues, from the Lord's Supper to infant baptism to the role of elaborate ceremonial in church services to the relation between Scripture and Tradition and so on. And there are Christians (formally "heretics", I suppose) outside of Nicene orthodoxy, who make the Christian net still broader. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses, whom you have mentioned, are anti-Trinitarian (I believe), and "heretical" in that sense, but I would not deny them the name "Christian". And going the other way, to the non-Nicene Churches of the East, I wouldn't deny the Copts, the Armenians, or the adherents of the Assyrian Church of the East ("Nestorian") the title of "Christian", either.

The application of this to the discussion of evolution, creation, etc. is as follows: it is perfectly legitimate for you as a particular type of Lutheran to approach such questions in the way that you do; but it is perfectly legitimate for Calvinists and Catholics and everyone else who is Christian to do so in their own way as well. And speaking with my religion scholar's hat on (rather than my personal theologian's hat on), I tend to recoil at language which implies (however politely), that *this* and not *that* is the truly "Christian" understanding of creation, or of nature, or whatever.

Mutatis mutandis, what I've said about "Christian" goes for "Biblical". I am dubious that anyone -- Catholic or Protestant, TE or ID -- has a corner on the truly "Biblical". For example, who is to say that the ultra-Calvinism combined with near-literalism of certain ID proponents is the only legitimate "Biblical" teaching? (It may surprise you, George, to know that in other venues and private conversations I have taken some bruising hits from Calvinist ID people who think I am too sympathetic with the Enlightenment. My religious thoughtcrime in one particular case was to object to the parts of the Old Testament where God commands the slaughter of civilian populations. I was accused of being a Leibnizian "rationalist" for arguing in this way, even though I clearly adduced Biblical passages such as "God is love" -- passages which were brushed off. Perhaps you will sympathize?) And on the other hand, who is to say that your understanding of creation in light of the suffering Christ is the "correct" reading of the Bible? The Bible scholar in me, the historian of Biblical interpretation in me, resists all such decisive judgements. (If such interpretations were offered in the way that Jews offer their midrashic Biblical interpretations -- i.e., as possibly helpful guides to the text, but not essential for correct Jewish faith or practice -- I would not object. But unfortunately Christians over the centuries -- Patristic and Medieval, Protestant and Catholic -- have developed a habit of pressing their particular Biblical interpretations as actually or almost doctrinally binding, so that resistance to them is greeted with something like orthodox indignation.)

So half, or more than half, of the counter-pull you are feeling from me, comes from these sorts of scholarly considerations, not from any personal theology of mine. But you are right that we all have our own leanings and inclinations, and doubtless part of my resistance to you comes from my personal theological inclinations. I'll try to spell those out a bit, but my answer will be far from satisfactory.

I was raised Anglican, and still respect parts of that tradition (though it's been going down the tubes at a rapid rate recently, largely due to the vacuousness of its leadership), but currently I have no denominational allegiance. My own approach is rather unusual. I generally divide the religious world not into Catholic and Protestant, or even into Christian and non-Christian, but into "ancient" and "modern". On the "ancient" side (where "ancient" includes the Middle Ages and a few years beyond) there are the great Greek philosophers (Socrates/Plato/Aristotle), and there are Judaism, Christianity, and the other great religious traditions of the world. On the modern side there is Bacon and Hobbes and Kant and Darwin and the Enlightenment and the popular dogmas of modern mass society. Of course there are people with "ancient" inclinations who have lived in the modern world (Swift, Lewis, Blake, Weil), and people of "modern" inclinations who have lived in the ancient world (Lucretius, the Sophists), but overall, the two worlds have a different feel about them. For one thing, the religious thought of the ancient world was generally either cosmocentric or theocentric; the religious thought of the modern world is decidedly anthropocentric. From a religious point of view -- and here I differ from some Protestants, for example Michael Foster, the Oxford Christian philosopher -- cosmocentrism and theocentrism are much closer together than are anthropocentrism and theocentrism. Both cosmocentrism and theocentrism entail heteronomy. Heteronomy means that humans are meant to pay reverence to, and to be ordered by, something greater than themselves -- God, the gods, the order of the cosmos, the Tao, Brahman, etc. Anthropocentrism, however, is linked with autonomy -- human beings are answerable to no one but themselves. Thus, it seems to me that the similarities between Christianity and pagan religion are far more important than the differences, when the practical alternative to both is modern secular thought. I therefore think that the equation that many conservative Christians make between "pagan" and "secular" is completely erroneous, and that it is a particularly dangerous error when it comes to the proper evaluation of pagan philosophy, i.e., Greek philosophy.

On the philosophical/theological level, I think that historical Christianity has tried to hold together the best of Athens and Jerusalem, so to speak. Whenever the West has overemphasized one of these two sides, the rational or the revealed, it has found itself in trouble, veering in one direction towards some form of necessitarianism (Spinoza, Hegel, etc.), or in another direction towards a fanatical revelationism (e.g., Cromwell's barbaric gang of theocratic thugs in England, or the witch hangings in Salem, or Calvin's barbecue party for Michael Servetus in pious Geneva). And to bring this up to date, the barbarities of excessive Biblicism which many TEs protest angrily against -- the ideas of Gish and Morris and so on -- are in my view a consequence of abandoning the "Greek" pole of Western civilization in favour of the "Biblical" pole. Oxford and Cambridge produced people like Henry More and Dean Inge and C. S. Lewis, not Gishes or Morrises, and the reason for this is that rational, systematic theological thought was pursued at Oxford, in a way that it was not pursued in, say -- I'm inventing the names -- the First Baptist Church of Nashville, or the Southern Georgia Brethren in Christ Seminary, i.e., the sort of places that would invite Gish or Morris to come as important speakers. The voluntary self-severing of American sectarian Protestantism from the age-old European Christian intellectual tradition was, in my opinion, the greatest spiritual disaster (other than slavery) in the history of the country. So I lean toward those syntheses of reason and revelation, Bible and philosophical thought, which have been at the heart of Western culture for centuries. On the Catholic side, there is Christian Aristotelianism, which I greatly respect; and among both Catholics and Protestants (and among the Orthodox) Christian Platonism has also always been an important tradition. I find myself more aligned with the Platonists, because I think Plato leaves more room for the perception of the divine than Aristotle does. But generally speaking, the notion that God has a rational dimension, and that this rational dimension is reflected not only in nature but in the human soul, has always resonated strongly with me. The Pope's Regensburg speech of a few years ago hit many of the right notes, from my point of view. The Pope was careful not to reduce God to an Enlightenment God of mere reason; but also he was careful not to make God into a wholly alien, anti-rational God who requires fanatical "commitment". And while it looked to many as if the Pope was attacking primarily Islamic fanaticism, he was definitely addressing tendencies toward extreme fideism within the Christian world as well.

So you can see why "natural theology" is no big problem for me, and you can see why "intelligent design" is no big problem for me. There is no reason why I should fear intelligent design or find it theologically distasteful, as some here apparently do. Obviously a God who is the Logos (which in my tradition is not merely "speech" but "rational speech") is going to transmit some of his Logos-character into the world he creates, for the same reason that Plato, if he were an author, would have written Shakespeare's plays and not Camus's *The Stranger*. It is therefore not impossible, and it is even likely, that expressions of the divine Mind will be found in nature, and not at all "masked".

I would say that one of the key differences between us is that you would tend to see creation in terms of Christ as the sufferer, whereas if I were inclined to see Creation in Trinitarian terms, I would tend to see it in terms of Christ as the Logos - the Reason in the Godhead. You have some traditional support for your position -- e.g., Luther, and possibly Simone Weil (whom I admire); but so would I, if I took the Logos route. And this brings me back to my first point. I don't think you can say that *the* Christian view of creation requires understanding creation in terms of kenosis, and understanding nature in terms of God being "masked" and so on. You can fairly argue in favour of that view, citing Scripture and tradition. But to imply that other views of creation are less than Christian, or inadequately Christian, or come from people who aren't very good scholars of the Bible, is -- aside from its obvious diplomatic problems for intra-Christian discussion -- historically highly questionable, to say the least. I would call your view "a" Christian view of creation -- no more and no less. And, so as not to seem to be picking on you particularly, I would say the same of the view of any TE. I would also say that of the personal views of creation held by Behe, Dembski, etc. And I would encourage everyone -- ID and TE alike -- to argue out these differing understandings of creation and nature *not* the way they are doing now -- which is basically with the attitude (and frequently with the tone) with which Luther argued with Erasmus, with which the Calvinists argued with Arminius, with which the Nicene fathers argued with Arius, with which the Pope and the Patriarch argued over the filioque clause, with which Luther and Calvin argued against the Anabaptists, etc., but to argue them out with due humility, in an exploratory manner, with the understanding that the Christian tradition is vast and diverse and that many points (especially regarding the nature, activity and intentions of God) are very much unsetted. It seems to me that there are many people on both sides of this debate who are far too sure that they know how God thinks and acts.

Cameron.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: George Murphy
  To: Cameron Wybrow ; asa
  Sent: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 12:10 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] an Archimedean point in theology? (was: natural theology, bad and good)

  Cameron -

  I'll be happy to indicate why I think it's appropriate to give priority to "Jesus Christ and him crucified" in doing theology. It might also be helpful, not just for this thread but for others here, for you to indicate what you see as the Archimedean point. You say below, "It might help if I articulate where I am coming from" and give some explanation, but you haven't - unless I've missed it - said specifically what theological tradition you're operating from. From what you've said I'm guessing Roman Catholic or perhaps Anglo-Catholic, but maybe you'll surprise me.

  Almost all serious theologians these days, even those who have strong confessional commitments, are ecumenical theologians. We don't just read, & are influenced by, people from our own tradition. But it can save a lot of time is discussions if we have at least a general idea of the other person's commitments.
    
  Shalom
  George
  http://home.roadrunner.com/~scitheologyglm

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Received on Thu, 14 May 2009 02:11:55 -0400

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