Please permit me a flight of fancy if you will, for I would like to indulge in a moment of preposterous anachronistic dialog.  You see, I should like to stand up and speak in defense of poor Euthyphro.  Euthyphro, you may recall, was the noble young Athenian whom Socrates encountered outside the court of justice. Being himself on trial, and old enough to be Euthyphro’s father, Socrates is rightly shocked by Euthyphro’s determination to bring down the heavy hand of judgment upon his own father, for having murdered a serf.  The young man confidently claims to be acting in all piety, showing no mercy on his father.  In Plato’s telling of the dialog Socrates makes a mince pie of Euthyphro’s self-righteous claim to know right from wrong with “exact knowledge of all such matters.” [1]  Euthyphro bases his claim on perfect knowledge and perfect righteousness on his understanding of piety as “that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.”  At this point Socrates proceeds to finely grate Euthyphro’s piety into a pile of empty phrases.  Deftly deploying his famed ‘Socratic method’, he points out the logical flaws in Euthyphro’s position, mired as it is in the incoherent idea that perfect piety can be found in the contradictory wills of the pantheon of Greek gods.  Socrates frames the decisive question thus-

 “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”

 Of course this is the age-old question of whether divine command theory can carry any water as a viable theory of moral philosophy.[2]  I have to say, I find the contemporary philosophical treatments of this question rather dry reading, compared to the following long-lost scrap of anachronistic, ancient-future dialog, which I have just discovered lurking in the flickering synapses of my imagination.  Plato’s publishers no doubt would have considered such stuff sacrilegious, and cut it out, but here for the first time we can read the rest of the story…

SOCRATES: Well it seems justice will sadly elude me once again, for poor Euthyphro cannot seem to answer the dilemmas inherent in my question, ‘whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.’

 EUTHYPHRO’S ADVOCATE [played by me]: Very good, Socrates; you have given me the sort of question which I wanted.  But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.

 SOCRATES: Of course.

 EA: Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. Piety must be defined in terms of two extreme opposites defined within arguments forbidding the excluded middle?  Was not that said?

 SOCRATES: It was.  Well,…  um, I think.

 EA: Good heavens, Socrates! And is your knowledge of religion and of things pious and impious so very exact, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state them, you are not afraid lest you too may be doing an impious thing in prescribing the epistemic ground rules of morality upon which the gods are permitted to play for the prize of your pleasure?

SOCRATES: The best of Socrates, and that which distinguishes him, Honorable Advocate, from other men, is his exact knowledge and privilege in all such matters. What good could I possibly have been to my student Plato without such assured speech?

 EA: Indeed, many will be sure to listen to such a silver tongue as your able pupil Plato has given you.  There was a notion that came into my mind while you were speaking; I said to myself: ‘Well, and what if Socrates does prove to me that all the gods regarded the epistemic ground rules to be just as he has stated them?  What if he really does have privileged knowledge of the nature of piety and impiety?’  Such notion should give me pause.

 SOCRATES: True.

 EA: Yet, as I recall you saying just a moment ago, did you not admonish dear Euthyphro that “Any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers.” Do you not agree that you said this?

 SOCRATES: True.

 EA: Yes, and did you not also speak truly in saying, “That which is loved is in some state either of becoming or suffering?”

 SOCRATES: True.

 EA: And so, it is true, as you said, that “the state of being loved follows the act of being loved, and not the act the state”?  Is that right?

 SOCRATES: True.

 EA: Then does your argument necessarily rest on the presumption that the act of loving, and the existence of the thing which is loved, belong to two distinct categories, each definable apart from the action or essence of the other?

 SOCRATES: Certainly.

 EA: Dear Socrates, have the gods revealed that presumption to you?

 SOCRATES: Certainly not. Why should I entrust them with such duty?

 EA: Indeed.  And yet, what if the gods were not susceptible to inconsolable disagreements, and mired in analogies of human reason, but rather were united in one being even while maintaining their healthy discourse, yet in a manner which bespoke meaning into the terms of discussion, even creating the terms of discussion, we might say, in a fashion which simultaneously conferred and admired with spontaneous affection the presence of each other?  And what if we could also be so loved, even as they loved each other?

 SOCRATES: That indeed is an idea which no human myth has ever conspired to propagate into the realm of logic and jurisprudence.  Why in such a case, we should have to call all our quarreling gods a sacrilegious cabal and turn instead to worship a wholly other kind of god in spirit and in truth.

 EA: Quite.  And how might you express the nature of such a God?

 SOCRATES: I really do not know, dear Advocate, how to express it. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us. [Sighs.]

 EA: Would that your silver tongue could further expound in this vein, for you are quickening my spirit and anticipation of something quite profound.  What say you?

 …silence…

 EA: oh, and Socrates, one other notion came into my mind during your silence just now…  Might not the existence of such a God render the whole notion of the excluded middle in such matters wholly irrelevant to God’s very being?

Third Sunday of Advent


 [1] Plato, Euthyphro, in Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 1. New York: Random House, 1937.  Also: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642.txt

 [2] William J. Wainwright, Religion and Morality (Hants, England: Ashgate, 2005). See especially chapter 5.

Further reflecting on the difference between the “corridors of faith” depicted by William James and C. S. Lewis (see my “Hall Pass”, 17 September 2008), I wonder what life would be like in the “rooms” leading off the halls of James’s and Lewis’s imaginations. What would be their distinctive marks of character?  Would I enjoy living there?  Or would they be “nice places to visit, but not to live?”

At first glance, we notice that both James and Lewis acknowledge wide variation in the rooms leading off their corridors.  As James said, it matters not what takes place in the rooms, whether they be places for atheism or prayer or chemistry or metaphysics.  And Lewis’s hall similarly leads into very different sorts of rooms, where language, aesthetics, norms and customs vary widely.  Nonetheless, the rooms of each corridor do share common traits, and we must look to what characteristics they hold in common if we are to understand the significance of either James’s mere ‘pragmatism’ or Lewis’s mere Christianity. We must peer into the rooms and discern their quality of life, for it is in the rooms that life is lived; it is in the rooms that the fruit of our labors is produced and harvested.

 Perhaps the most obvious difference between James’s and Lewis’s depictions is that James’s rooms are private rooms, peopled by individuals pursuing their independent sciences, philosophies and worldviews.  Lewis’s rooms, however, house communities of people sharing life.

James explicitly describes his “rooms” of pragmatism in terms of individual pursuits-“In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties…”, and so on.  And this makes perfect sense, given that the individual pursuits matter not.  Indeed one person’s pragmatic pursuits and beliefs must not hold sway over any other person’s pursuits or beliefs, for that would open the door to dogma and dogmatic teaching.  James’s corridor of pragmatism can thus lead to any pursuit, any worldview, so long as it “works”, so long as it suits the individual pursuing it.  James’s corridor thus is perfectly suited to the postmodern mantra of “whatever works for you.” Relativism rules, because relativism is the antidote to noxious dogma. In this regard James truly was ahead of his time, for his “Whatever!” trumps “credo.”

 Lewis, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that life takes place in community.  The “rooms” in his metaphor are all communities of faith. There is no room for solitary confinement.  Much as people can and do disagree in his rooms, even on important matters of faith and dogma, people will also be held accountable to their community and to their shared faith, and even in an important sense people in each room are accountable to the others in all the other rooms.

Herein lies a sharp challenge for faith: How can a faith community tolerate internal disagreements over dogma, let alone find a way to get along with the secular community around them?  Such disagreements are decidedly impractical, are they not?  The Christian life therefore stands as antithesis to pragmatism.  It is patently impractical, non-pragmatic, and even non-conformist, by the standards of James’s ‘mere pragmatism.’[1]  No wonder James held such antipathy toward Christianity! Yet, this will be a defining mark of Christian faith, if Christianity is true-communities of faith will live out their beliefs by honoring God above all, even above dogma.  And they will find a way to do it that invites others in to share their fellowship; in Lewis’s metaphor, people will perennially invite outsiders into their particular “rooms” of community and faith.

The Christian life therefore presents the world with something strange-a community of belief that holds something as more important than, shall we say, more sacred even, than their own ability to articulate a shared dogma.   This will be the defining mark of Christian faith, over and against pragmatism, and it can only be expressed in the form of witness among a worshiping community.  Barth rightly explains why Christian belief is inseparable from life lived as a witness to belief-

Because the election of Jesus Christ is the truth, then the difference of those who are chosen in Him (their calling) is the witness to the truth besides which there is no other. There and there alone the truth is testified-there and there alone it finds expression…[2]

And what will this witness look like?  How will this nonconformist, zealous Christian life appear to others who are both inside and outside the faith community?  Strange?  Yes, but strangely human:

It is thus most striking that he [a Christian] presents himself to other men of the world as a nonconformist, as one who is zealous for God’s honor, as a witness to what he, who is also a man of the world, has to advocate to others of his kind.  He does this by offering to them the image of a strangely human person. [3]

 

 


[1] Karl Barth elaborates on this impractical and non-conformist character in The Christian Life: “Hence he can have not practical use for enterprises that still compete with the knowledge of God in the world”, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 203.

[2] Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church Dogmatics, II/2 (345).

[3] Barth, The Christian Life, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 204.

  Traversing the Corridors of ‘Mere’ Pragmatism & ‘Mere’ Christianity

“The Corridor” by Suman, www.packetlog.com   William James and C.S. Lewis make an impressive duo, being two of the most widely published authors of the past century, who came at the big questions of life from strikingly different directions.  In a fascinating coincidence, they each hit upon the same metaphor to depict the core of their beliefs: a corridor with many doors leading into rooms.  Apart from sharing this apt poetic device, their views were diametrically opposed.  

James takes credit for bringing the idea of ‘pragmatism’ into prominence.[1]  He claims that pragmatism is a method of knowledge capable of rescuing philosophy, metaphysics and religion from dogmatic rationalism, and from all dogma in general.  Pragmatism “has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.”[2]  He claims that pragmatism stands “armed and militant” against dogmas.  Pragmatism thus serves as the path to true knowledge, and in this regard, it is like a corridor through which one may walk on the path toward discovering meaning and truth in experience:

[I]t lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it.  In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties.  In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown.  But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.  No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means.  The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, “categories,” supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.[3]

Thus, James is interested not in what takes place in the rooms, whether they happen to be laboratories of scientific discovery or temples of idealistic absurdities.  The rooms contain an infinite variety of different pursuits and topics.[4]  The only thing that matters is the corridor itself-the pragmatic approach to the rooms.   The door of each room must be reached through the corridor of pragmatism.  The corridor is the place which matters, not the rooms where the activities take place.  The corridor represents the method of pragmatism, which presumes that all dogma is meaningless.  In other words, the content of any room is meaningless if not entered through this particular corridor.

For Lewis, the corridor also represents knowledge, but in a distinctly different sense.  On Lewis’ view, what happens in the rooms does matter; it matters very much, and so he says, 

“And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best…”[5]

Lewis and James also have far different ideas in mind when they describe their corridors.  For James, the corridor represents an epistemological method-the practice of ‘pragmatism’ which rules out dogma.  For Lewis however, the corridor is not a method, but a place representing knowledge of ‘mere’ Christianity.  It is to explain what he means by the term ‘mere’ Christianity that Lewis devises the metaphor of a hall:

…I hope that no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.  It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms.  If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted.  But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.  The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.  For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. 

 For Lewis, then, the corridor is a conduit for creeds-the beliefs that Christian churches have used to represent orthodoxy over the centuries.  James would declare this anathema to the very concept of pragmatism, because creeds and dogma embody the idea that beliefs are important, that they actually matter in and of themselves.

The difference between James’s and Lewis’s corridors is profound-Lewis’ corridor is a place of knowledge leading into rooms where knowledge matters; James’s corridor is a method devoid of knowledge, which cares not what content is being discussed in any of the rooms.

Despite this stark contrast, one more profound similarity remains in these metaphors-both James and Lewis invite us into faith.  Lewis’ faith is clear: it is stated up front, it is confessed in creeds, and practiced in rooms where it comes to life, where “there are fires and chairs and meals”.  It is a living faith that cannot ultimately survive in the corridor, but must be invited into a room where there is life.  James likewise extends an invitation into faith: he has faith in pragmatism.  But James’s faith resides in the corridor itself, independent and outside of what might be taking place in any of the rooms.  James’s faith can survive forever in the corridor, unlike you or I, who if we were to lock ourselves out of the hotel room some night, would eventually need some help to get back into a room sometime to find sustenance (and hopefully that help would arrive before we were embarrassed to be seen wandering about in our pajamas day after day).

Thus James and Lewis both espouse faith.  The salient difference seems to be that

James never explicitly recognized that his corridor was an embodiment of faith.  James’s corridor of pragmatism contains epistemological presumptions that determine the significance of every step taken through the corridor, and hold the key to every room.  Lewis’s faith on the other hand makes its presumptions explicit, even articulated in the form of creeds.  James’s denial of dogma turns out to be a dogma in itself,[6] and the faith served up by ‘mere’ pragmatism turns out to be a mere illusion.


[1] James, “What Pragmatism Means”, Lecture II in Pragmatism: New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (Courier Dover Publications, 1995), pp. 18-19.[2] Ibid., p 21.[3] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[4] To extend the metaphor, James is keenly interested to classify and provide a taxonomy to help explain people’s predilections for religious “rooms” in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity, xvi.

[6] Stanley Hauerwas reminds us of the important pretext to James’s metaphysics found in his “deep moral objection to Christianity”, and his belief that modern scientific method, and especially Darwinism, had rendered the Christian belief in God unintelligible”. Hence James’s obvious disdain for dogma.  Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: the Church’s Witness and Natural Theology, (London: SCM, 2002), p. 78.

 Sermon on the Mount (MontagneMinistries.com)  I’ve just returned from presenting papers at two conferences during the past week, in Rome and Cambridge.  From the Vatican to Westminster College, this trip surveyed Christian faith from multiple vantage points of culture and tradition, traversing the intertwining paths of metaphysics and morality.  The Rome conference, The Grandeur of Reason (1-4 September), displayed the courage which Pope Benedict XVI calls the academy to embody:

The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.[1]

This conference served up the whole smorgasbord of metaphysics, from Plato, to Augustine, to Hegel, to Kierkegaard, to now and back again, in four days of papers, often running concurrently in multiple sessions, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

The Society for the Study of Christian Ethics (SSCE) conference followed immediately (5-7 September) in Cambridge, discussing The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Ethics.  The papers here faced into the mysterious challenge of Jesus’ teaching to “Judge not!” [Matthew 7:1] in matters of ethics, all the while living in a world which brings the daily burden of judging for ourselves [cf. Matthew 5:25; Luke 12:57].

In his plenary address Oliver O’Donovan shed light on the central place of the Lord’s “Our Father” prayer in the Sermon on the Mount.  Christian ethics are inseparable from prayer.  Apart from prayer our judgments will be distorted and even incapacitated by the “log in our own eye” [Matthew 7:3]. As O’Donovan has previously taught, Jesus’ question, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” might better be translated, “judge of yourselves”.[2]  This directs our attention back to consider our need to be healed of our own distorted vision and unloving judgments.  Thus the authority and rightness of Christian ethical judgments will rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in our self-examination.  Christian ethics emerges from “hopeful attention to the inner dialogue with God” which takes place in response to “the evangelical summons to be judge of ourselves.”[3]

These back-to-back conferences traveled from metaphysics to morality and back again, traversing the well-trodden paths of restless human thought. If there is any resting point along these circuitous paths, it lies in the center, with the heart of prayer which Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  Prayer-that inner dialog with the Holy Spirit-preserves and chastens our moral deliberations and protects us from investing our worship in a metaphysical representation of God, rather than in God himself. Even the famous skeptic William James warned of the monster that lurked in the creation of a metaphysical god:

So much for the metaphysical attributes of God!  From the point of view of practical religion, the metaphysical monster which they offer to our worship is an absolutely worthless invention of the scholarly mind.[4]

I believe it was Bonhoeffer who counseled us in this regard, and told us how to stay on the paths of metaphysics and morality which lead to God, when he said:

Retreat from the ontic along the lines of the ontological is inadmissible for Christian life.



[1] Address to the University of Regensburg (“Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, 12 September 2006).[2] O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 293.

[3] Ibid., p. 309, 312.

[4] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Mentor Book, 1958) p., 371.  I am indebted to Stanley Hauerwas for calling attention to this quote in With the Grain of the Universe (London: SCM, 2002), p. 75.

    Life means tension.  Of course there is the biological tension of the struggle for survival, shared by all creatures, from amoebas to humans.  We humans however also have the unique privilege of living with the tension of good and evil, which turns our thoughts toward God and eternity.  This tension is felt in the contradiction between our desire for moral goodness and our encounter with the inescapable reality of moral breakdowns throughout our history.

 Mt Hope bridge in RI (photo by bellullabob on flickr)  In his personal struggle to believe in God in spite of the horrible realities of war, the young German POW Jürgen Moltmann came to faith and began to develop his famous Theology of Hope.[1]  Fifty years later, Moltmann continues to reflect on the biblical message of hope.  He recently wrote of our need for an ethics of hope.  Can there be any other viable option for ethics in the face of the tension between persistent evil and the possibility of change and transformation, other than an earnest search for “an ethics of hope for the future of this world in the kingdom of God”? [2]

    And how do we pursue an ethic capable of holding together the two poles of this ethical tension?  Moltmann suggests we begin by uttering ‘hope sentences’.   That is to say, not just by proclaiming hope in words, but also by living in a manner that shows what hope looks like, and what hope means.  That’s what St Francis was getting at when he said, “Proclaim the Gospel loudly; when necessary, use words.”  Moltmann expresses a similar idea in terms of “the linking of ‘hope sentences’ with critical statements about reality, but not to a link with what are allegedly purely ‘descriptive sentences’.”[3]

   Descriptive sentences are the currency of empirical science.  Physics, biology and economics all make descriptive statements about reality.  Likewise philosophy operates by making descriptive statements, however speculative or contemplative they may be.  But descriptive sentences are not enough for ethics of hope.  It’s not enough to describe human behavior or the functions of neurons.  No amount of statements and hypotheses about society, culture, or evolutionary psychology can provide a basis for hope.  Hope requires something more than descriptions of nature and human behavior, which is decidedly infused with immorality in terms of any ethical system humankind has yet devised.  Hope requires a promise to hope for and a reason to trust the promise.   That kind of promise is expressed in prayer, worship and Scripture, which provide the grammar for ‘hope sentences’.  To build ethics other than on the basis of hope sentences is to build a fragile structure that will ultimately fail to survive bouts of despair and suffering.

Promise is essential to bridge the tension of life and sustain an ethics of hope:

The historical present and the eschatological future can only be bridged in the language of promise, not in the language of concepts.[4]

This is why the resurrection serves as the foundational bedrock for an ethics of hope. Dostoyevsky powerfully demonstrated this connection between ethics and the resurrection in the lives of The Brothers Karamzov, which illustrated both the depths of despair and the strength of hope sentences.   Ivan cannot come to terms with the resurrection and thus concludes categorically that ‘all things are lawful’.  Alyosha trusts in the hope of the resurrection and reveals an ethics of hope in his life. This is the tension of ethics and the tension of human life.  Pro and contra:  hope or despair; lawlessness or ethics.  The resurrection is the bridge.



[1] Originally published as Theologie der Hoffnung (1964).[2] Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology (Fortress, 2000), p. 101.   [3] Ibid.  [4] Ibid, p. 102.

   Wikipedia has changed the task of writing the average term paper.  “Wiki-papers”, I am tempted to call some of them.  Wikipedia has undoubtedly changed the intellectual landscape by making knowledge more accessible: never before have so many cited so much with so little effort.[1]  Rock formation, Wadi Rum desert, Jordan

   Improved access to knowledge is an obvious benefit, so long as that knowledge has truth and integrity.  The bigger and more difficult question is whether and to what extent Wikipedia alters the quality of knowledge.  In this regard, the effects of wiki-technologies are more ambiguous.

  Does the collaborative nature of Wikipedia create a new virtual reality-“wikiality“-where knowledge floats and migrates through time and cyberspace on the democratic winds of unsolicited edits?  Does this lead to a shift in which subject matter expertise counts for less than the popularity of competing perceptions?  This question leads into an interesting debate, which probes the foundations of knowledge itself.  If knowledge is based in hard objective facts, will those facts consistently rise to the surface through a process of continual editing, just as the monuments of solid rock in the Wadi Rum remain standing while the surrounding sands have been dispersed by the relentless forces of erosion over the millennia?  Or will solid truths be obscured by a new wikiality in which truth itself becomes contingent upon the averaging effects of mass perceptions?

  Jimmy Wales, the “community founder” of Wikipedia,[2] advocates the position known as “neutral point of view” (NPOV), which says that the forces of democratic open editing will lead to an equilibrium, the NPOV, by removing distortions of reality, and thus wikiality provides a trustworthy path to objective truth. [3]

  No matter the outcome of the debate over the perceived advantages and disadvantages of wikiality, wiki-phenomena open up an exciting prospect for the study of knowledge generation and transfer.  In particular, I would be interested in studies of theological knowledge.  For example, what does the idea of wikiality mean for religion?  Is there a virtual world of religious beliefs that moves and shifts with changing cultural forces as more voices gain access to the knowledge base?  Is there a similarity between the Wikipedia editorial board and ecclesial authorities?  The advent of wiki-technologies would seem to open the possibility for empirical study of doctrines, both religious and secular.

  By way of example I offer one suggestion for further study-how does the concept of NPOV apply to theology? NPOV says that knowledge reaches a steady-state equilibrium.  This would seem to be similar to the second law of thermodynamics which says that extremes of hot and cold average each other out over time, and arrive at a uniform constant temperature.  When applied to the universe, this law says that given enough time, everything in the whole universe will eventually decay into a “heat death” where there is no temperature or energy gradient. When applied to knowledge, this means that extreme views of reality will cancel each other out, and knowledge will thus stabilize in a statement of objective reality. 

  In Christ however, we worship a living God, not a stable of facts.  Truth therefore is a person, a living person, and the idea of NPOV would seem to be insufficient for true theology.  NPOV might share some traits with certain creedal statements, but the endorsement of creeds comes alive neither in publications nor advisory boards of editors, but rather in worship by living bodies in communities of faith.  This why Jürgen Moltmann describes theology in terms of life:

Every Christian theology [is] a concrete theologia viatorum, a theology of those on the way, who in the differing estrangements of this world and this history are searching for the one coming truth which will one day illumine everyone.[4]

Theology takes place in the act of walking alongside each other (on the via), seeking God, and in the presence of God.  The theory of NPOV might aid academic study of the flows of doctrines, but ultimately it is not up to the task of theologia viatorum.  NPOV is more likely to reach equilibrium in the manufacture of a Golden Calf than in worship of the living triune God of grace.


[1] Well, please forgive me for saying this with a smirk, as I reflect on the exercise of grading term papers, but were you expecting to see a wiki-citation here?  See below for an example:[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_wales (26 June 2008).

[3] Jimmy Wales and his colleague Larry Sanger take opposing sides in this debate.  There’s a good synopsis of Wales’ Wikipedia experience in “The Free-Knowledge Fundamentalist”, The Economist Technology Quarterly, June 7, 2008, pp. 27-28.

[4] Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), pp. 60-61.

natural theology and the via negationis

       The heavens declare the glory of God;                                                  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.         Psalm 19:1

fingerprint I’ve always loved the night sky.  The ebullient stars and the lugubrious black depths between them beckon thrilling attention to the grandeur of nature.  At the same time, this grandeur invariably reminds me of a reality so far beyond our comprehension that I could never hope to fathom God.  Psalm 19 captures this numinous moment in which we apprehend the glory of nature.  No matter whether we believe in God or not, and no matter which “God” we believe in, this verse speaks truthfully regarding the moment of apprehension. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has caught the eerie, wispy tendrils of a dark interstellar cloud being destroyed by the passage of one of the brightest stars in the Pleiades star cluster. Like a flashlight beam shining off the wall of a cave, the star is reflecting light off the surface of pitch black clouds of cold gas laced with dust. These are called reflection nebulae.

If the stars, and indeed all of nature, speak of the glory of God, then what can we learn about God through nature?  This is the perennial question of ‘natural theology’: If God has left his fingerprints upon the creation, then what do these fingerprints tell us about God himself? With ever more powerful telescopes, microscopes and DNA sequencers, we peer ever more deeply into the heart of the cosmos, learning more about creation and life itself as we go.  But can we really know God by looking at his fingerprints?  After all, the psalmist stops short of saying that the heavens reveal God in person; rather, they reveal his glory, his magnitude.

If we limit our knowledge to observations of nature, allowing no quarter to any self-revelation by God in the form of the Bible or Jesus Christ, then we will be confined by the limits of human reason and senses to make sense of things.  This is the essence of ‘natural theology.’  Philosophy and metaphysics become our guides, and these tools have led to widely varying conceptions of reality-stoicism, Epicureanism, humanism, nihilism, utilitarianism, naturalism and deism, to name just a few-each with its own self-ratifying internal logic and self-judged coherence. But to what “God” do these conceptions lead?  We might say these have led to many ‘gods’, each defined on the basis of human perceptions and reason, but to one unique God they have not led.  Rather, if natural theology is to make any comment on the one God, it will necessarily be through the via negationis, that is, the “negative way”.  This way proceeds by making statements about what we can not know or say about God, because God’s ways are inscrutable and his being too immense for our puny brains to fathom.  He remains forever “cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown”, according to the mystical wisdom of the Tao.

Indeed, there is a long-standing respect in Christianity and many other religions for the value of the “negative way”.  St Augustine acknowledged the impossibility of scientific description of God when he said, “We can know what God is not, but we cannot know what He is.”[1]  Thus, he admitted, “I speak only so that I not be required to remain silent.”  In this confession he seemed to anticipate Wittgenstein’s bon mot: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  This is the path of the via negationis in theology-to articulate that which God is not, because our language and reason are incapable of saying what he is.  This is the only scientific path open to natural theology.  Other paths lack internal consistency, and thus must be ruled out as un-scientific.  This is the spirit in which Karl Barth objected to natural theology, not for any failure of its powers of observation or reason, but because it ignored the rigorous limits of its own self-imposed logic in via negationis whenever it ventured to make positive statements regarding the one God, the God known through the history of Israel, Jesus and the Bible:

When perceived in its epistemological significance, this means that we are unable to achieve through our own natural powers and capacities the cognitive union with God which true knowledge of him requires.[2]

Thus for Barth, natural theology (theologia naturalis) remains inescapably shackled by the handcuffs of the via negationis, which constrains knowledge of God to the abstractions of human reason; whereas revealed theology (theologia revelata) is never shackled in this way.  Revealed theology rather proceeds from positive knowledge of God as the self-revealing One:

We cannot ask: “Is God knowable?”  For God is actually known and therefore God is obviously knowable.  We cannot ask about an abstract possibility of the knowledge of God.  We can ask only about its concrete possibility as definitely present already in its actual fulfillment.[3]

True knowledge of the true God is positive knowledge, actualized by God in self-revelation.  This knowledge is revealed in Jesus.  It is historical and concrete knowledge of the sort that lies beyond the horizon accessible by the paths of abstract metaphysical reasoning.  It is grounded in “nothing other than the concrete and unique story of Christ.”[4]

So, we can learn much about glory, immanence, and immensity through nature, seeing the “fingerprints” of God therein.  But if we are to move from description of the attributes of those fingerprints to knowledge of the one true God, and not away from Him into abstractions and ‘-isms’, then we must meet the person to whom the fingerprints belong: Jehovah, Emmanuel, Holy Spirit. 

Whitehead sagaciously surveyed the philosophical boundaries of science and discerned that the success of science lay in its foundation:

It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.’[5]

There are two essential ingredients here-rationality and the personal God, Jehovah, who gives that rationality positive meaning, freeing it from the bonds of the via negationis.  This latter ingredient is recognized by the prophet who also stood under the glory of the night sky and rather than acquiescing to the limits of abstraction, discerned its meaning in knowledge of the one true God who can be named:

He who maketh the Pleiades and Orion, and turneth the deep darkness into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night; who calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: Jehovah is his name.  [Amos v.8]


[1] De Trinitate.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (T&T Clark, 1990), p. 143.  Torrance insightfully concludes: “[Barth’s] struggle with the problem of natural theology is also a struggle for rigorous scientific method in theology”, Ibid. p. 145.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, pp. 63-4.

[4] CD, IV/1, p. 75.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1925), p. 18.

 talking points…

Eustace: “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”                Ramandu: “Even in our world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”   

Ramandu, the “retired” star, imparts age-old wisdom to Eustace, the smart school-boy, in C. S. Lewis’ tale, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Close-up of white dwarf stars at center of Milky Way galaxy (Hubble, NASA)

What is a star?  Is it a huge ball of flaming gas?  Or is it a piercing point of light that skewers the darkness of night with a fire that sears the apprehending soul?  Yes.  And, No.  One definition strives for quantifiable exactness, while the other revels in the sensation of something too awesome for words.  Both descriptions say something true, and yet each falls far short of reality. Both answers might fairly be deemed “Star-Talk”, that is, talking about stars with the intent of saying something important.  But of course, as the wise old Ramandu knows from first-person experience, a star itself is more than either answer can express.

Theology is like that too.  We might as well call it “God-Talk”.  We can use all kinds of language to describe God: in terms of metaphysical attributes, personal qualities, and worshipful encounters, and of course there are the names recorded in the Bible.  Do any of these words tell us who God is?  Yes.  And, No.  Yes, but only in the event of his self-disclosure, and not in the power of our language to contain Him or define him.

For God-Talk to succeed in its goal of expressing something important, requires a posture of worship, in which we recognize God as the one who makes himself known.  Otherwise God-Talk too quickly devolves into metaphysics, psychology or philosophy, setting aside ultimate reality in the pursuit of a self-referential coherence.  Likewise, Star-Talk can devolve into physics, and set ultimate reality aside in the pursuit of a coherent self-referential mathematical language.  This is not to deny the validity of the physics and math; they are not false; they are true.  We need them, and value them for their coherence.  It’s just that they don’t capture ultimate reality.  To know what a star is, the scientist needs to apprehend the star, not just talk about the star.  God-Talk is like that, too.

Has God stopped creating, or is he still at work as Creator?  The creation is clearly complete in some important sense, for “on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” [Gen. 2:2].  Yet in another sense we know that God is still at work, as Jesus said in explanation for the miracle of healing he performed on the Sabbath: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” [John 5:17].  Herein lies another beautiful paradox of theology, another paradox which seems to deny the simplicity of either/or questions.  The question of God’s on-going activity in the creation seems to demand an answer in the form of “both/and”, in order to sustain two paradoxical truths: God finished the creation and rested, and yet the creation is made new by the trinitarian living God.[1]Baptism of Jesus

This paradox expresses the heart of the debate over the idea of “continuous creation” – the idea that God is still actively exercising creative power.   As a scientist-theologian, John Polkinghorne reads “the book of nature” as providing strong evidence for the on-going creative activity of God:

The scientific recognition of the evolutionary character of the universe has encouraged theological recognition of the immanent presence of God to creation and of the need to complement the concept of creatio ex nihilo by a concept of creatio continua.  Continuous creation has been an important theme in the writings of the scientist-theologians.[2]

Continual creation also finds support in trinitarian theology, for the doctrine of God would seem to require some form of on-going creative activity, if we are to avoid the reductionist idea of God as the maker of a “clockwork universe”-a god who created the cosmos and then stepped aside to let it run on its own.  This is the basic idea of Deism: that God has stopped working.  We reject this notion based on the witness of Jesus as still alive and working, both during his ministry in Palestine, and now through the Holy Spirit: He is yet alive, and is the one who says, “See, I am making all things new” [Rev. 21:5].  God also spoke through the prophet: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” [Isaiah 65:17]. 

But there is a risk of carrying this idea of continuous creation too far.  We must keep in mind the sense in which the creation is “finished”, and not contingent upon our human freedom or any random sequence of events. Oliver O’Donovan rightly warns against the mistaken ideas of voluntarism and historicism which imply that human will and behavior are changing the course of God’s creation:

Classical Christian theology took trouble to distinguish between the ideas of ‘creation’ and ‘providence’. … The modern faith in ‘continuous creation’ is merely the latest form in which forgetfulness of this dialectic between order and contingency betrays itself.[3]

By rejecting continuous creation outright, O’Donovan seeks to avoid the slide into relativism which makes our moral judgments arbitrary.  Such relativism occurs if we conceive of the moral order as an evolving function of human choices, rather than as a pre-existent reality established by God at the Creation.  Thus O’Donovan warns: “Creation as a completed design is presupposed by any movement in time.  Its teleological order … is not a product of the historical process.”[4]  With this slide to relativism in mind, O’Donovan rejects the variety of humanistic existentialism that would imply the moral order is a creation of our own imaginations.  O’Donovan thus asks the rhetorical question:

 “Is cosmic order really present in the world, or is it imposed upon reality by the human mind?”[5]

But is this a false dichotomy?  Are we really forced to choose between moral order and existential relativism?  And does relativism really result from the doctrine of continuous creation?  That dichotomy seems to unfairly paint the idea of continuous creation into a (heretical) corner.  Indeed, there is an equally unfair false dichotomy awaiting us  in the opposite direction, if we deny too aggressively the possibility of on-going creation.  The problem is that a categorical denial of the possibility that God is yet active as a creative presence in the creation is tantamount to Deism. Such a move into Deism supports natural theology within a doctrine of God.  Here’s why: If there is no sense in which we may conceive of God as being actively at work in the creation, then we might as well base our doctrine of God on observation of the natural and moral order within the creation. In other words, knowledge of the natural would lead us to understand the mind of God, if we were to presume that God is no longer at work in creation. Polkinghorne recognizes the risk of heading too far in this direction:

 … [A]notion of continuous creation may be expected to go beyond a deistic upholding of the universe in being, for so strong a concept seems inadequately realized in terms of the God of natural theology alone, who is simply the ground of cosmic order.[6]

Thus, we conclude that the either/or alternative of continuous creation vs. relativism is a false dichotomy.   We do not need to deny God’s on-going creativity in order to sustain a coherent doctrine of objective moral order.  Rather, the challenge is to formulate a doctrine of God that encompasses both the possibility of continuous creation and the objective reality of moral order which displays God’s teleological purpose for the creation, without moral reality becoming contingent upon the whims of history brought forth through human freedom. Such a doctrine of God is entirely within the scope of trinitarian theology, for the mystery of participation in Christ encompasses both God’s freedom and human freedom.  This is the biblical witness to the interplay of God and human wills as being within the power of the Holy Spirit.[7]

Polkinghorne offers the helpful suggestion that kenosis provides a fruitful approach to understand the interplay of human and divine freedom:

[T]he Creator’s kenotic love includes allowing divine special providence to act as a cause among causes.[8]

Our doctrine of God can thus remain robustly immune from the dangers of polarizing statements either of (a) existential relativism as a necessary implication of continuous creation; or (b) natural theology as a necessary condition of the objective reality and teleological completeness of the of the moral order.  The “trick”, if there is one, is to sustain the mystery of inescapable paradox in the biblical witness to participation in Christ as the walk of faithful obedience and worship of the Triune God of Grace.[9]  Paradox is unavoidable in Trinitarian theology, and attempts to dispose of the paradox lead us away from the mysterious heart of our relationship with God.  We give Polkinghorne the last word here:

Kenotic theology is inevitably paradoxical theology, for it is founded on the concept of the humility of God.[10]



[1] This need for a balanced “both/and” answer brings to mind the humorous observation of Colin Gunton regarding the task of theology: “To seek ‘balance’ as a primary end in theology is to court boredom, if not disaster; yet imbalance can also be catastrophic.  Such are the difficulties of the discipline.” Act & Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 20.  We shall see in this paper how imbalance can be catastrophic to the doctrine of God, and we shall seek to remain unbalanced enough to avoid boredom.[2] John Polkinghorne, “Kenotic Creation and Divine Action”, in The Work of Love: Creation and Kenosis, ed. John Polkinghorne (Eerdmans, 2001), p. 95.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1986), p. 61.

[4] Op. cit., p. 63.

[5] Op. cit., p. 67.

[6] The Work of Love, p. 96.

[7] The interplay of divine and human spirits, as well as the inter-relationship among the Trinitarian Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has long been a foundation of Christian theology.  The concept of perichoresis dates back to the Cappodocians (esp. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus) as a description of the ‘relation between the divine and human natures in Christ.’  For an insightful explanation of perichoresis, see T. A. Dearborn, “God, Grace and Salvation”, in Christ in Our Place: the humanity of God in Christ for the reconciliation of the world : essays presented to James Torrance, eds. Trevor A. Hart and Daniel P. Thimell, (Paternoster, 1989), pp. 265-293.

[8] The Work of Love, p. 104.

[9] J. B. Torrance has definitively expressed the doctrine of God in these terms in Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Paternoster, 1996).

[10] The Work of Love, p. 106.

Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture to the science faculty at Regensburg (12 Sept. 2006) stirred up a lot of controversy, which unfortunately obscured the point of his talk on “Faith, Reason and the University”.   His topic echoed the question posed by Tertullian some 1800 years ago- “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[1] Tertullian’s point was that philosophy can be a tool of heresy, as Paul warns against: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe,? and not according to Christ.” [Col. 2:8].

Temple of Hephaestes, AthensWith respect to the Pope’s address to the scientific community at the university we might rephrase the question as, “What indeed has Regensburg to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what can science and philosophy have to do with faith?  While the admonitions of Paul and Tertullian with respect to heretical philosophies remain perennially valid, there are indeed a lot of reasons for the Pope to invite faith into a dialog with science and philosophy which is not heretical.  The reason is reason itself.  The academic disciplines share reason with faith.  Reason as a whole is part of the creation established and sustained by God.  Thus the reasonableness of faith, and reasons for having faith in reason at all, are foundational for  all intellectual pursuits.  Science and faith are naturally brought into dialog by their shared desire to understand the creation.  As Colin Gunton reminds us:

Christianity is a philosophical faith, at least in the respect that in its main streams it has never renounced the conceptual task: the task of making clear in what manner its gospel is true, and true in the same sense that other things are true-for example the concepts and formulae in which natural scientists give accounts of their discoveries.[2]

The need for this dialog becomes obvious when we face the big questions of life which science fails to address:  ethics and value, human experience and meaning.  This is why I see ethics at the heart of the matter when it comes to the dialog between science and faith.  This is the realm in which Athens and Regensburg each have something to do with Jerusalem – of course there is little gained from dialog with heretical philosophies, as Tertullian warned against; but rather, the value comes from an openness to seek the whole realm of reason by every gift of intellect and every discipline of study that God has given us.

Benedict XVI notes two errors which can derail this dialog – it can fail either by sliding into a subjectivism which leads to “sheer impenetrable voluntarism”, or by falling into the trap of “the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable.”[3]    Thus, the twin perils which threaten the integration of faith and reason are voluntarism on the one hand, and empiricism on the other.  Dialog between faith and science collapses when either of these ‘~isms’ prevails, because neither of them can sustain the wholeness of reason.

Likewise, our ethics also collapses if we ever base moral knowledge on either voluntarism or empiricism; neither of these can bear the weight of ethics.  We seek therefore an approach to ethics that validates both the internal reality of personal experience, and the external reality of the created order.  This tension between the internal and external aspects of reality lies at the heart of evangelical ethics. 


[1] Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, vii (“On the prescription of heretics”).  This passage continues: “What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?”[2] Colin Gunton, Act & Being, (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 21.

[3] “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, lecture at University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006.

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