Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Incarnation, Creation, and Kenosis

As Evolution Weekend approaches, and I think through my sermon, which will look at Job 38:1-11 (entitled:  Were You There?  -- In the Beginning), I've been rooting around in my books on science and faith.  Because I'm not a scientist, I recognize that whatever I say on scientific matters needs to be said with a degree of tentativeness.  On the other hand, that lack of expertise shouldn't prevent me from speaking to issues such as this.
The idea of kenosis has become a helpful term when speaking of God's involvement with the universe.  The term has an ancient currency, being used by Paul in Philippians 2 as a way of speaking of the incarnation.  Both Philip Clayton and John Polkinghorne use the term in their conversations about the faith/science relationship.

Now, I do have to note that Daniel Dennett spoke of this use with a certain disdain after "listening to Philip Clayton speak in Cambridge last year.  Dennett writes on Richard Dawkins' blog:

But I learned a new word: “kenotic” as in kenotic theology. It comes from the Greek word kenosis meaning ‘self-emptying.’ Honest to God. This new kenotic theology is all the rage in some quarters, one gathers, and it is “more deeply Christian for being more adapted to Darwinism.” (I’m not making this up.) I said that I was glad to learn this new word and had to say that I was tempted by the idea that kenotic theology indeed lived up to its name.
 Now, if Dennett had done his homework he would discover that this is not new at all, but has been part of the conversation for centuries, but this really isn't about Dennett and his sarcasm.

I want to bring into the conversation a quote from John Polkinghorne that speaks to the question of the incarnation as an expression of God's involvement in the created order.

The central Christian kenotic paradox of the incarnation centres on just such an act of divine self-limitation, so that God's nature is manifested in the plainest, and most accessible, creaturely terms through the Word's assumption of humanity and consequent participation in human life and human death in Jesus Christ.  As the Fathers liked to say, the Ancient of Days lay as a baby in a manger.  The invisible God took our flesh and became a visible actor on the stage of the universe.  If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate then, there in first-century Palestine, God submitted in the most drastic way to being a cause among causes.  Of course, that was not all that God was doing during that period.  Christian theology has never simply equated God with Jesus, nor supposed that the historic episode of the incarnation implied that there was, during its period, an attentuation of the divine governance of the universe.  The incarnation does, however, suggest what character that governance might at all times be expected to take.  It seems that God is willing to share with creatures, to be vulnerable to creatures, to an extent not anticipated by classical theologies picture of the God who, through primary causality, is always in total control.  (John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science & Understanding, pp. 125-126). 
What Polkinghorne, who is a fairly well known and highly regard physicist who is also theologically trained, is doing here is point out how we might understand the way in which God is able to be present and yet also allow room for the universe to self-create.  That is, the God who is love, must allow such freedom lest God be a cosmic tyrant -- and the incarnation is helpful in understanding this idea.  


Anonymous said...

We need to understand these conjectures are merely hypotheses, and will likely never reach the level of truth or even theory. Unless we plan to add to the scriptures, we need to remain humble in our imaging. These are the type of constrains (good) scientists live with everyday, usually without anxiety. Theologians, or self-proclaimed prophets sometimes tend to proclaim a "truth" that might be simple emotion, rather than God inspired truth. Remembering this it's a good way to progress though. I often like prayer that involves imagination and fantasy based on reason. David Mc

Philip Clayton said...

Bob, just saw this post. Sadly, Dennett's comment to me in Cambridge reflects an attitude pervasive among the new atheists: Christianity must be destroyed without taking any time to find out what it really affirms.

-- Philip Clayton