Critical Faith: Theology in the Midst of the Sciences –

Engaging Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit
Thoughts on Chapter 1

As noted in a previous posting, I’m part of a theo-blog effort -- Transforming Theology -- and my assignment is Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008). This book is divided into five sections, the first being entitled: “The Methods of Philosophy and Theology.” Chapter 0ne – my focus here – is entitled: “Critical Faith: Theology in the Midst of the Sciences.” A critical faith is one that is willing to engage the modern world, with all of its complexities and challenges. This will require adaptation and transformation if we are to successfully navigate this situation.

This discussion of the role of theology in the context of the sciences comes, for me, in the wake of our recent observance of Charles Darwin’s 200th Birthday. It also comes as I finish reading Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin (HarperOne, 2008). In the process of reading both books I’m reminded that I cannot do theology without giving some important thought to the sciences, and the questions they pose to theology.

Whatever Darwin’s purpose, evolutionary theory raises questions that we must address or lose any hope of long term viability. Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it asks important questions that we dare not flee. You can run, as they say, but you cannot hide. In dealing with theology in the midst of these scientific questions, Clayton poses six theses for our consideration. I would like to deal with each of them briefly.

1. The New Context for Theology

How might we respond to our modern context, one in which science plays such an important and often discouraging role? Of course, it’s not only science, its religious pluralism, secularism, and the privatization of religion. Theology no longer reigns as queen of the sciences, and many question the relevance of our faith. There was a time, perhaps, when the world might hear the words “The Bible Says” and it would heed that word, but that die has long since passed into oblivion.

In this new world, what is theology? The first answer that Clayton gives is for me a bit disconcerting. It is sterile and academic – “Level-two discourse concerning level-one beliefs, attitudes and practices of the Christian Community.” (Adventures in the Spirit, p. 24). I’m not sure that a definition will preach. I much prefer the term “believing reflection.” The key here is the recognition that “believing reflection” involves both “doubt and radical questioning.” Science requires that we ask hard questions. It challenges us to rethink how we believe and construct our theologies and our practices. As progressive Christians we face the absolutist claims of both religious fundamentalists on the right and radical secularists on the other end of the spectrum. So, as we approach our context for theology, we must recognize that there is the possibility that faith and belief is impossible to sustain (pp. 24-25).

2. Theology Concerned with the Question of Its Own Truth.

In his second thesis, Clayton takes up the proposals of German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg tried to challenge Karl Barth by placing the context for theological reflection in history. In fact, he sought to demonstrate the validity of the Resurrection within the context of universal history. He was concerned about Barth’s removal of the theological conversation from the broader intellectual conversation. Theology, he believes is subject to scientific inquiry, and Christian truth claims must be placed out in the intellectual marketplace for discussion. Clayton, points out that Pannenberg recognizes the contested nature of Christianity’s truth claims. However, he is not sure that Pannenberg’s solutions work. He’s not sure that Pannenberg’s conviction that “God has already both revealed and accomplished the end of history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” gives sufficient room for conversation with other faith traditions or recognizes the difficulties inherent in this position. He appreciates the recognition that we must engage in conversation with the world, but he finds Pannenberg too narrow.

3. Theology beyond Established Conclusions: The Model of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Clayton’s preferred conversation partner is new to me: philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Clayton writes that a more radical model is needed beyond that suggested by Pannenberg, one that allows for the conviction that “the life of faith is possible even in the absence of knowing.” Peirce himself was unsure about the value of theology, which he saw is inherently exclusive, demanding absolute adherence to particular doctrines. With this challenge as a starting point, Clayton believes that there is possibility of reform, but it must be open. Such a theology can help us determine what can be kept and with must be discarded. In this new understanding of theology, we enter into conversation with other religions and with science not knowing if our best arguments will favor our position. Although Pannenberg is by no means a conservative Evangelical, his position allows for much more certainty. Clayton, however, believes that if theology is to be transformed, then we must give up some of that certainty. That is not an easy task – especially if one is working within the context of a Christian congregation. As the world becomes more diverse and complex, for many Christians it is the simplicity and the certainty of the old faith that is attractive. So, how do we help our people wrestle constructively with this sense of uncertainty?

4. Theology, Inquiry, and the Nature of Discursive Communities.

Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus: “What is truth?” That is a question we have long wrestled with. Turning once more to Peirce, Clayton notes that Peirce defined truth as “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate” (p. 31). In other words, truth is that concept that garners consensus. Private claims to knowledge are insufficient. We must put out our claims for discourse and in the end, that which garners the widest acceptance after “strenuous inquiry,” is accepted as truth (p. 32). As I consider this statement I’m better able to understand the nature of scientific truth claims, especially in relation to evolution. Even if not every question is answered in full, there is a consensus, and thus evolution is true. As Christians, following this logic, when we do theology, we must wrestle with this challenge and adapt accordingly. Clayton writes of the context in which theology is undertaken:

“Theology, like the other disciplines with which it must be in dialogue, exists in the ever-changing realm in which hope, faith, doubt, and skepticism intersect.” (p. 32).

Such a context may not provide certainty, but it does recognize the reality of the situation.

5. Theology in the Midst of the Sciences

Here is where the conversation really comes alive. We discern the need for theology to engage the world in a new way. The church can, if it chooses to remain resistant to change and transformation. Or, it can follow the lead of the reformation and embrace the principle of semper reformata, knowing that “revisions are a constant requirement for any tradition that wishes to speak to its contemporary intellectual and social context” (p. 33).

If we are open to this new situation, then we must engage in conversations both with other religious traditions and with the sciences. This is engaging in “comparative theology,” understanding my own theology in comparison with other possibilities. One is inter-religious and the other is non-religious.

With regard to the sciences Clayton makes the important point that we should avoid two false starts: 1) Assuming that theology is a science and thus can engage in dialogue with the sciences from within. We must, if we’re to have a conversation with the natural sciences, recognize the difference between theology and science. 2) Use science to prove Christian assertions. In other words, the old attempts to prove the existence of God through natural philosophy simply do not work anymore. Of the goal of science he writes: “is to explain the order that we discern in the empirical world, using fundamental natural laws, traceable case histories, and replicable experiments where possible.” To move beyond this – into higher level conversations – is to move into philosophy, and while there’s nothing wrong with philosophy it’s not natural science!

Having said that, it is important to not his warning: “It no more makes sense to advance the theological truth claims in ignorance of the results of the sciences than it does to argue the superiority of one religious tradition over others without knowing what they claim and what the reasons are to which they appeal” (p. 34). In other words, if we are to be true to our calling as theologians we must once again embrace the principle: “faith seeking understanding.”

6. Should Theology Take the Risk?

It is risky, embracing a conversation with religious pluralism and science. It could lead us down roads we’d rather not take. It could put our own faith at risk? So, is it worth the risk? After all, we could make mistakes. In answer, Clayton says that although this is risky, the alternative is even riskier. How dangerous is it to the life of the spirit to “embrace theologies that are based on outdated scientific cosmologies and empirically false claims about the world, rather than basing theological reflection on the best available knowledge we have about the universe” (p. 35). He reminds us that when Galileo was raising questions about the universe he wasn’t just challenging biblical understandings, he was challenging Aristotle, on whom the church had based its interpretation. Aristotle had been left behind, but the church refused to accept this verdict, preferring to base its theology on an outmoded science. Yes, if our witness is to have any value, then we must engage the best that the world offers!

We who are communicators of the gospel, of the good news, have choices to make. We must choose how and what we will communicate. If we are committed to the truth, which would be what consensus would hold as true, then we must also, Clayton insists that we understand that there is only one truth. And as we do critical theology, we must do it from the perspective of humility. Theology no longer rules as Queen of the Sciences. It must be a kenotic effort, self-emptying. But if there is humility, there must also be boldness. Why? Because, Clayton says, we must move from the empirical to the metaphysical. We are called upon to develop and defend our theological positions.

Richard Dawkins compares Christian theology to “fairyology.” He feels no need to engage it, because it is simply fairy tales, and a scientist he need not waste his time on such drivel. Clayton suggests that a critical faith is one that can engage those who are tempted by Dawkins to turn their backs on the conversation. I am hopeful that he is correct.


John said…
"[W]e must recognize that there is the possibility that faith and belief is impossible to sustain."

Impossible to 'sustain' or impossible to 'validate'? I would disagree that it is impossible to sustain and I would not be surprised if it were impossible to validate - otherwise it would not be faith. I also expect that in the end science can neither validate nor invalidate the genuine truths of God - though I expect it to continually invalidate myth which we have falsely elevated into theological truths.

Anonymous said…
Good points-

There is more truth to guide us in Science Fiction than in science.
Scientists just have lots of data.

Arthur C. Clarke (a writer, but also a part-time scientist) formulated the following three "laws" of prediction:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

David Mc
John said…
As for the second thesis, perhaps I reveal my lack of depth here as well as my lack of orthodoxy, but I wonder if the resurrection event is not made too much of.

For me it was an integral part of Jesus' Incarnation, as God dwelt among us, that Incarnation also withdrew from among us. Jesus resurrection was not THE signal event, but merely the final episode in the event of the Incarnation.

I think it lends undue focus on the resurrection to say that it is the "end of history." The Incarnation event included the birth, ministry, betrayal, execution, death, and resurrection of God in history.

Also, I resist the suggestion that the life, death, and resurrection are the 'end of history' that too, I think misses the essence of God's intention - if God's intentions are at all knowable.

God's creative effort is continuous - before and beyond the Incarnation. I understand that the Incarnation is nothing more and nothing less than God's insertion of Godself into the course of Human history in the most dramatic way, with the intent of effecting the most dramatic consequences for humanity. Those consequence would be the result and after-effects of the Incarnation; they would not be the Incarnation itself.

History was not completed with the Incarnation, it was altered. History continues, with God transcendent to the process, and with humans free to integrate the Incarnation into it. And if humanity continues to have free choice, humanity would be free to respond to the whole of the Incarnation as a divine catalyst or reject it.

John said…
Item number 3 brings me back to the old refrain of the nuns in catholic grade school when I asked too many questions (or questions that defied simple answers): It's a mystery.

As I have matured I have come to respect that refrain more and more. Some things are a mystery - that is the nature of the transcendent. Some mysteries will be solved by science, some will not, some soon, some late, some never.

The friction between Greek thought as well as its modern counterpart, formed in the Age of Reason, is that western societies have come to deny the validity of true mysteries in their certainty that everything can be explained, discovered or eliminated by the application of reason and science.

Just because something is a mystery today does not mean it has been deemed by God to be a mystery for all time - many things simply require better science. At the same time some things are a mystery, and are a mystery by design.

But contemporary thinkers are often compelled by the success of science to deem all mysteries to be the product of inadequate science. That is, I think, a mistake.

Faith is by its very nature and definition not something which can be proven. On the other hand, while false theological propositions can be disproven, the truth of genuine tenets of genuine faith also cannot be disproven. They are mysteries. Good mysteries, Divine Mysteries.

Perhaps one role of theology is to discern the boundaries between mysteries arising from inadequate science and those mysteries which are genuine product of the Divine.

Likewise I think it would be a helpful endeavor for congregations to teach such discernment to their parishioners while at the same time raising consciousness of, and reverence for, genuine mysteries.

John said…
In No. 4 you apparently acknowledge the correctness of the quote: "We must put out our claims for discourse and in the end, that which garners the widest acceptance after “strenuous inquiry,” is accepted as truth."

I cannot agree. Truth is not democratically arrived at. Truth, like God, transcends consensus. I will agree that truth can only be grasped as a concept, and then only partially. I will also agree that a community is often better at discerning a truth than an individual, bringing more information, and greater perspective to bear on the matter. However, I cannot agree with the concept that truth is best arrived at by consensus.

Ideas, such as the fair interpretation of Scripture, can be sounded out and worked out through consensus, but TRUTH is not an idea, nor a concept, it is reality or perhaps a component of reality. That being said, even communities of faith can go astray, by consensus. It is my belief that the Incarnation occurred to correct just such a communal peregrination among the Jews. They were too wedded to their consensus regarding the importance of their quest for personal and national purity that they were losing sight of the heart of what God had previously revealed to them, that is, love of God and neighbor.

Truth simply is - regardless of how many or how few humans can glimpse it. Often it is viewed by only a few and against the great weight of consensus.

For many years the consensus stood against Darwin. That did not make evolution wrong or untruthful, just unacceptable. The hardest truths are usually unacceptable.

John said…
In No. 5 you suggest: “revisions are a constant requirement for any tradition that wishes to speak to its contemporary intellectual and social context”.

I think it a dangerous idea to suggest that revision per se is mandatory for survival. It may be, but I don't think so, at least not on all levels. Certainly that is true with respect to the language and ritual and the medium used by religions.

I think there are some basic truths - there is a God, who created the world and loves his creation, especially humans, as only the very best parent can love their own child, no matter how delinquent. I think that God dwelt among humans to help us come to know and love God in a form that one cold know and love, even though the totality of God exceeds human comprehension, or perhaps because the totality of God exceeds the limits of human comprehension. These I would claim for me are not negotiable, not subject to revision.

Speaking organizationally, when "revision" becomes an organizing principle, if not the organizing principle, then basic truths are open for debate, and when basic truths are reduced to arguable notions, then, organizationally, the spirit that breathed life into the organization dissipates and is lost.

On the other hand I think that exposure to other faith traditions has a number of benefits, not the least of which is the discovery of what is unique and non-negotiable about one's own beliefs.

Another benefit is the possible development within the believer of an image of God as speaking in more than one faith language, with different alphabets, different grammar, and different ways of understanding God and the God/human relationship. And in embracing that notion, coming to recognize that God does not fit into our box.

John said…
In No. 6 you note "Richard Dawkins compares Christian theology to “fairyology.” He feels no need to engage it, because it is simply fairy tales, and a scientist he need not waste his time on such drivel."

Well then why does he waste his thoughts and words in his ongoing dialogue with believers?

I come across many believers who feel driven to convert others, and I suspect that what they are looking for is validation for what they think is true. (In a way they too are seeking a consensus.)

Is it possible that Dawkins is engaged in the same struggle externally and internally.


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