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] (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.