Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Bible: Outdated in Light of Science?

As I’ve been interviewing emerging adults (age 18-30) about their views on science and religion, here’s one key discovery: Ancient religious texts seem outdated and therefore unscientific. Why? Scientific knowledge and technology looks forward; it advances and improves. Religious knowledge seems to always look in the rearview mirror, and therefore religion stagnates.
      And though I try assiduously not to invoke “Saint Clive” (aka Clive Staples, or C. S., Lewis) at every turn, with angels singing in the background, thereby invoking putative infallibility, I can’t deny that Lewis both addressed this question and presented a thoughtful and entirely defensible answer.
      In his 1955 paper delivered at Oxford’s Socratic Club, “On the Obstinacy of Belief,” Lewis presented the contention (which he then sought to disprove) that scientists give up their beliefs in proportion to contrary evidence; believers cling to their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. How can that be justified?
      Lewis resolved this problem by distinguishing between the “logic of speculative thought” (which dominates science) and the “logic of personal relations” (which is essential to belief in, and relationship with, God). But here I want to change the focus not to belief in God, but in the veracity of the Bible. I return to Lewis on this particular task in a moment (and more generally, I discuss it in chapter 6 of my book on St. Clive, which you can find here.) Shouldn’t we give up the Bible in light of science? 
      Certainly, the Bible does need to be updated and correlated with good science. Frankly, there are some notions that may appear “biblical,” which have to be jettisoned. When I’ve read various accounts of the Galileo trial—which, incidentally was not primarily about “science versus religion” since both Galileo and his adversaries were believing Catholics—there was considerable dispute about how to interpret the Bible’s assertion that the sun circled the earth (as in Psalm 19). Today, I doubt many Christians would conclude that the Bible teaches geocentricism. Instead the image of the sun’s running its “circuit” around the sky doesn’t teach that it revolves around the earth, but it metaphorically depicts what we actually see every day. In the same way, Galileo, along with Augustine over 1200 years before, concluded that if scriptural interpretation disagreed with known science, we should revise our interpretation.
      And so we should. Today, floating around many Christian circles are the dualistic versions of the soul—that there is an entirely separable substance within our bodies—something like air inside a tire, or more philosophically, a “ghost in the machine.” This owes much more to Plato than the Hebrew Bible. Accordingly, we can update and correct our doctrine of the soul by looking at the Scripture, which sees human beings as body/soul, a psychosomatic unity. We can also learn this from contemporary neuroscience, which certainly cannot find an immaterial soul. Or we can remember that a sharp tap on the head with a hammer will probably interrupt our prayer life.
      All this means we need to follow the truth wherever it leads and, whenever appropriate, update our biblical interpretation. As John Calvin rightly commented in his 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion,
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.
If the truth appears in natural science, we need to learn and follow it. For this reason, a six twenty-four hour day creation is untenable if Christians want to take on mainstream science. But this is not a new idea. Back now to Lewis who pointed out that Genesis 1-2 probably “derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical,” or as the church Father Jerome put it, was written “after the manner of a popular poet” (thus a myth).  Put another way, the Bible is not a scientific textbook and doesn’t claim to be.
      Indeed and paradoxically, there is a grand positive here: science is not the sole arbiter of truth, and that our biblical interpretation is about learning to live within the narrative of the Scripture, to let God’s story become our story, as it were. We don’t memorize the Bible as we do the Periodic Table. Again to cite Lewis: the Bible
carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning its overall message.

So, no, Lewis wasn’t infallible, nor does he have an answer for everything we face today. But he did get some things right, and we do well to listen and learn.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Notes on How Pluralism Challenges the Integration of Religion and Science with Emerging Adults

Here's a current excerpt from an academic article I'm writing on the problems facing the integration of science and religion, especially in light of the attitudes of 18-30 year olds. 

In discussing the relation between religion and science, it sounds like a conversation about two things (and may imply, to many) a conversation between Christian faith and science). And that fact may deceive us in understanding the attitudes of 18-30 year olds on the topic. Emerging adults have grown up in an environment saturated with options and possibilities. This experience has become increased through the explosion of knowledge on the Internet, with the number of websites fast approaching one trillion (a number that can be monitored here). 

In some ways, this is essentially the reality of pluralism, and we could argue that this not really a new problem. But that notion strikes me as a bit naïve. Pluralism is not entirely novel, to be sure, but it will certainly continue to increase. And for the focus of this article—namely, emerging adults—the panoply of options available makes it difficult to decide about science and religion. In a recent article (behind paywall), “The ‘Relation’ between Science and Religion in the Pluralistic Landscape of Today’s World,” Zainal Abidin Bagir rightly notes that this simple “and” between “science and religion” obscures a mass of complications, for one thing, that both are primarily about ideas. And there are other concerns: Emerging adults are not only facing the situation of religion (in the singular) and the way it interacts with science, they are coming to grips with the variety of religions that can be brought to bear on scientific insights, and not only the five classic world religions of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, which leaves out religious traditions with rather large numbers of adherents such as Sikhism, but also indigenous traditions as well. Bagir rightly highlights these concerns and concludes that
The intention to expand the discourse by taking into account the pluralistic landscape that we know and experience today requires not simply inviting more participants from different religious traditions but also demands the expansion of the conceptions of “science” and “religion.” (p. 406)
But I think we need to go further.
Emerging adults are experimenting with various religious inputs and therefore not subscribing to one single religious tradition. Put a slightly different way, emerging adults I have interviewed find it hard to decide on one religion in light of all the possibilities for spirituality, which makes it difficult to know which religion to bring to science. “I can’t commit to any religion until I know more” was a common refrain, which may reflect “choice phobia,” but may also be a statement of supreme humility. And this pluralism is not simply moving beyond religion and Christianity to any number of other religions, whether “world religions” or indigenous ones. It is about dividing religious practice in various slices. Analogically, this is an iPod playlist approach to religion instead of an LP one in which the listener makes the choices from a variety of artists, and is not bound by the sequence that the artists themselves assemble. If it sounds like we have arrived back at Wuthnow’s theme of emerging adults as bricoleurs (or "those who tinker"), then I have made my point. Thus many voices exist, and many students blend a variety of spiritual insights, certainly not simply Christian, but other religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Wiccan practices, as well. In addition, there are those who synthesize belief with materialism, such as the hard-core biochemistry student who could not deny that he prayed and the request seem to be granted. He remains unsure that this is not simply coincidence, and yet, continues to pray. The blend of various beliefs—and even unbelief—confuses the theoretician who seeks pure types, but that is the reality of emerging adult culture. Ultimately, the choice may be based on an inherent pragmatism, and not on what is theoretically true. All this makes twenty-first century pluralism, as practiced by 18-30 year olds, complicated and dizzying to grasp. We have left the world of two-dimensional “science and religion” to something much more multi-dimensional for which I frankly have no substitute term.
Finally, in this search for religious answers, one result is that many emerging adults would rather Google than go to a congregation in pursuing answers about science and religion. One of the questions I posed in the interviews was this: “Where would you go to look for answers about science and religion?” A large majority responded: “the Internet.” As I mentioned above, the conflict model seems to predominate on the Internet in its craving to provide “click bait” for its users, provocative snippets of articles that demand our attention by their outrageous or adversarial claims. (We are naturally, neurologically stimulated by threat, novelty, and conflict.) These emerging adults find faith in the Internet (as it were) because of its putative neutrality, openness, and objectivity. Here I have to offer a further differentiation for who curates this conversation. My research suggests that, in addition to the Internet, academic voices have some air of neutrality for those outside faith communities. In contrast, for the 18-30 year olds who approach this question as Christians, for example, Jonathan Hill’s research indicates that a pastor’s voice, because it defines a social world, of what can be thought or not, is probably more important than the Internet or the college classroom. Hill writes, “For most students, then, it matters little what their professor teaches… What their friends, parents, and pastor thinks is going to be far more important, because their social world is inextricably tied up with these significant others" (Emerging Adulthood and Faith56). In contrast, for religious seekers (in all varieties) outside of religious communities, they are often distrustful of the church, synagogue, or mosque as a place to seek out answers about science and religion. Partly, this reflects distrust in institutional religious traditions as repositories for truth seeking. Partly, whether this is accurate or not, imams, pastors, and rabbis are seen as “hired guns,” who give answers that always reinforce their respective traditions because they are hired to do so. 

The net result is this: in order to make sense of diversity of options, emerging adults increasingly look to the Internet, which means the locus of their pluralistic search for relating—and perhaps integrating—science and religion will continue to migrate to a diversity of locations, but especially virtual ones.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review of Oliver Crisp's "Divinity and Humanity"

This is a review of Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge, 2007) and continues my summer series of serious books I am reading seriously. Advisory: This book--and thus my review--engages intricate and potentially arcane theological topics. 

Oliver Crisp teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a self-described proponent of “analytic theology,” which brings the tools of analytic philosophy to the practice of theology. Analytic philosophy seeks clarity of thought and language. So it’s no surprise that Crisp begins clearly and crisply (could not avoid that pun!) by describing the intent of Divinity and Humanity
"This book is a small contribution to the doctrine of the person of Christ" (ix) 
and that it will have three chapters expounding issues in Chalcedonian Christology and three that defend it against the same number of modifications. The six chapters address perichoresis as a christological category, the anhypostasia-enhypostasia distinction, whether Christ had a fallen nature, kenosis, and non-incarnational Christology.
      Divinity and Humanity is an intricate and, at times, quite difficult, collection of chapters. Therefore I’ve decided to eschew any attempt at a comprehensive review and critique. Instead I’ll offer a sketch of the total work with a few more specific reflections.
      The first chapter analyzes (let us never forget this is “analytical theology”) the distinction between two types of perichoresis: nature-perichoresis (NP here, which is applicable to Christology) and person-perichoresis (PP here, useful for Trinitarian formulations). For those unfamiliar with the term, perichoresis has the literal meaning in Greek of “dancing around.” It is therefore the co-inherence of two natures in Christ or of three persons in the Godhead, and tenders a way of maintaining the unity of Christ, though he is both human and divine (thus NP) or the unity of God, while being three persons in the Trinity (PP). Crisp assesses its helpfulness as a category for Christology and Trinity, and also does not take long before the reader (at least this one) realizes that NP will fare better in Crisp’s analysis. It seems to me that Crisp is trying to avoid the rather squishy way (if I may use a technical term here) that many theologians use perichoresis in the hopes of solving  problems with formulations of the Trinity and Christology.
      So Crisp wants to avoid theological (or philosophical) squishiness. And since he is an analytical theologian—who thus looks for clarity of language and analysis—I wondered about how univocally Crisp believes he can speak about God. Is there essentially a one-to-one correspondence between what we say about God and God’s true reality? Analytical tools may promise too much. My vote is that theological language is most often analogical (that any language about God’s reality is an analogy—i.e., God is not exactly a father, but God is like a human father in some ways). So here’s the kind of example from Crisp which provokes a question: “But the divine nature cannot be omnipresent and powerless without ceasing to be divine, because this entails that the divine nature is both omnipotent and limited in power, which is contradictory” (13-14). How do we know this contraction in human terms is also directly applicable to God?  Maybe such formulations are “too human—far too human” (to cite Karl Barth from Church Dogmatics IV/1, 186), and such analysis simply makes little sense. Can God both be described as omnipotent, but in that power decide to limit it? In private conversation, I know he is aware of the issues of univocal or analogical language (and the attendant theme of mystery), but I find quibbles in places with his willingness to stick to the power of human philosophical analysis where a certain ambiguity is left in the biblical witness.
      The second and third chapters address the human nature of Christ. Chapter Two is the longest of the book (at just under forty pages) and looks at “several longstanding theological problems for the Incarnation” (35) such as whether Christ had one will (monothelitism) or two (dyothelitism). Incidentally, one byproduct of such discussions in this book is that the reader quickly learns some unknown theological vocabulary and territory. Since I have an ongoing debate with a philosopher and friend about divine simplicity (that God is “simple,” or entirely unified, and thus without parts), I was particularly intrigued to read that we can look at Christologies according to their “parts.” Two-part Christologies assert a human body and the Word, while three-part ones present the Word, and a human nature with body and soul, distinct from the Word (41-2). At the end of a lengthy historical and analytical (but to me, too rarely biblical) tour, Crisp concludes “there is a strong case for dyothelitism” (49), where divine and human wills worked in perfect consonance
      The anhypostasia-enhypostasia distinction is the topic of Chapter Three. I’ll allow Ivor Davidson (in his article, “Theologizing the human Jesus,” IJST 3 (2001): 135) to offer the pertinent clarification: “the human nature of Jesus has not hypostasis of its own (it is ‘anhypostatic’), but subsists only and always as the human nature of the Son of God…. Negatively, the humanity of Jesus has not independent reality of its own; positively, it is hypostatized in union with, or in (en-hypostasis), the person of the Logos” (cited by Crisp, 74). A three-part Christology “entails that there are properties that the human nature of Christ exemplifies. It also means that the human nature of Christ is ‘part’ of the person of the Word, who assumes this human nature at the Incarnation” (89). Ultimately, Crisp leans toward a three-part Christology, which also makes the best sense to me in order to sustain the Chalcedonian declaration that Christ is fully human and fully divine.
      Chapter Four rejects Christ’s having taken on a fallen nature and represents a revision of what Crips first articulated in a 2004 article, “Did Christ have a Fallen Human Nature?” [IJST 6.3, 170-88]).  His answer is No, and, on the face of it, this contradicts key biblical texts such as John 1:14, which states “the word became flesh (sarx),” a word that consistently in the New Testament means fallen nature. (It also contradicts Barth’s work, which both he and I admire.) Crisp, who loves to use terms to make distinctions (another characteristic of analytic philosophers and theologians) presents a “fallenness” view (that Christ’s human nature has property of being fallen) in contrast to a “sinlessness” one (Christ’s nature was unfallen and therefore sinless). Crisp argues for the latter (91). There are several ins and outs to his argument, but the essence of it is quite simple: to be fallen means to be sinful (106). And, according to classical theology, in order to be the Redeemer, Christ was not sinful. Therefore this position is contradictory and incoherent (111-2). (In some ways, it would be entirely consistent to contend for the Immaculate Concept of Mary after this—since Jesus Christ’s humanity would have to be untainted by sin.) One other key point is that Crisp works at this topic through analyzing the meaning of original sin—he argues that humankind can have original corruption without original guilt (e.g., 104). As a critique on this chapter, I’ll cite David W. Congdon’s blog:
"Crisp misunderstands Barth and Torrance (among others) in their affirmation of the fallen human nature of Christ. The conflict rests, I believe, in radically different ontologies, such that Barth has an actualized-historicized account of what “nature” means, while Crisp works with a traditional, essentialist account. While this by no means exhausts the issues at stake, I believe this is where one must begin in order to unpack the christological ramifications."
Additionally, Crisp tends to generalize positions and then dissect these general arguments, but does not really engage in a point-by-point critique with his interlocutors. These are criticisms, yes, but let them not take away from a careful presentation of his theological conclusions.
      Chapter Five addresses the topic of divine kenosis, which builds from the Greek verb “to empty” (ekenosen) in Philippians 2:7 as a critical description of Christ’s work. Crisp decides to leave out the strong ontological approach to kenosis (that Christ was fully emptied of divinity) and therefore to deal with the weak ontological and functionalist ones (119-20). One of his key interlocutors on weak ontological kenotic Christology is Stephen Davis (and his book, Logic and the Nature of God), who presents the idea that omniscience is not an essential divine attribute and therefore Christ could have emptied himself of knowing all in the Incarnation (123ff.). In my view, Crisp’s most telling and essential (as it were) criticism on this view of the essence of Christ is this: “it is very difficult indeed to know where to draw the line demarcating contingent and essential divine properties” (132). Next he takes on functionalist kenosis. These argue that the second person did not abdicate divine attributes, but during the Incarnation, he did not exercise them (140). All have weaknesses, and he believes a kryptic Christology is most worthy of consideration (121), in which Christ’s divinity has an aspect of hiddenness, even while he retains his divine nature.
      The final chapter was to me the clearest. Here he takes on, and ultimately argues against, “non-incarnational” (read non-Chalcedonian) Christology. John Hick’s version is the exemplar, which presents six key claims: Jesus did not teach that he was God Incarnate, the Chalcedonian definition cannot be expressed adequately, the two-natures doctrine has led to justify enormous evil, Incarnation is better understood as a metaphor, Christians are best to focus on the life and teaching of Jesus, and the metaphorical approach to the Incarnation fits best with religious pluralism (155-6). To these points then: Crisp disputes Hick’s presentation of the consensus of historical-critical scholars that Jesus did not have a divine self-concept. Instead, as Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado (and others) have argued, Jesus was worshiped as God from the very beginning of the Christian movement (164-5). (Incidentally, Crisp regularly employs “Christ” in this chapter, which is a title, i.e., the Messiah or Israel’s King. This confused me because Jesus as Christ or Messiah is not really a component of his argument in this chapter.) The problems with the intelligibility of the Chalcedonian definition are what Hick calls a meaningless paradox, but Christian tradition has seen this as a mystery beyond human comprehension (169-70). The third claim (that two-natures doctrine leads to evil) takes Crisp just over a page to reject since the connection between the misuse of a doctrine and its truth or falsity are separate issues. As he puts in a footnote (171, n. 29)—but would have been better in the text because of its persuasive value—liberal theology also has many evils associated with it, e.g., liberal German theologians’ support for the First World War. Crisp criticizes Hick’s understanding of myth as expressing a truth that can also be fully translated into literal language (175ff.). I hardly need to mention that Crisp is not impressed with Hick’s concerns about a Christology that makes sense in a religious pluralistic world (178-81). In a word, Crisp doesn’t find too much to commend Hick’s Christology, saying that “Removal of the heart of the Incarnation from Christology is like removal of the heart from a living human being” (xii), and even more, Hick’s view “holds no terror for the Christian committed to incarnational Christology, for whom it is either a diverting but false report of who Christ is, or a dangerous heresy that should be resisted” (184).
      What about this text as an exemplar of analytical theology? In addition to my comments above, the essential question remains—Are the tools of analytical philosophy, formed to expunge metaphysical assertions from philosophy, appropriate for theology? Yes and no. Yes—they offer clarity where it obviously lacks in discussions about God, and it is astounding to see what results. No, when it attempts to find “clear and distinct” language where analogical language is more appropriate. As I mentioned above, Crisp is certainly aware of this problem, but in my view, he falls prey nonetheless. For example, his discussion of divine omnipotence strikes me as overly optimistic—optimistic that categories useful for philosophical analysis of earthly reality work for God’s nature.
      In conclusion, Crisp is brilliant and exceedingly well-read. One cannot help but learn in reading this book. I applaud all this. For what it’s worth, I also agree with many of his conclusions. Still, Crisp’s style is, appropriate to the analytical tradition, somewhat dry. It is not, however, entirely detached because he obviously cares about the subject-matter. Or better, the Subject, God. Indeed there is doxology rumbling below the surface of this book. Nonetheless, as one who appreciates and is certainly engaged by the style of Karl Barth—which often resembles a rousing sermon—I wanted a bit more of Crisp’s theological passion to rise to the surface. But maybe that’s not the book he wanted to write! What he did create is a careful, thoughtful, faithful, and serious theology. Simply put, if you want to learn about Christology, you should read it.

A Review of "C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian" (by Michael Fitzpatrick)

Greg Cootsona’s C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian is a rich and rewarding journey through C. S. Lewis’ most influential ideas. Cootsona frames each of Lewis’ theological and philosophical contributions with the personal challenges from Lewis’ life, as well as struggles that Cootsona or people close to him have faced. This book is ideal for those who find themselves struggling with doubt, especially the personal kind -- doubt resulting from pain, loss, or confusion. Cootsona takes these struggles seriously, but also tries to present resolutions, concepts that can aid us in our struggles to find the way out of a crisis and back into the grace of God. 

The book is organized into three main themes: philosophical arguments for the existence of God, theological arguments for basic Christian tenets (the exclusivity of Christ and the role of the Bible), and personal arguments for resolving basic struggles of feeling, suffering and death in universal human experience. In my judgment the book gets better the further it goes. I’m not sure why this is, but Cootsona seems to find his voice the deeper he pushes into Lewis’ oeuvre.

There are some aspects to grumble with. Despite Cootsona’s opening protestation that the book is not hagiography, the reader starts to wonder after awhile just how often we need to be reminded that C. S. Lewis is brilliant. In a few places clarity gets lost, as for example when Cootsona makes one of Lewis’ arguments into an explicit structure on p. 40. He provides us four premises about "naturalism" before drawing a conclusion about "materialism." Although he does tell us eleven pages earlier that he will use these terms interchangeably, this is still an unnecessary switch in terms, and it makes the logic of the argument more obscure. A third stylistic problem that arises is Cootsona’s occasional use of specialized jargon despite the book’s aim at a general audience. The fourth chapter of the book has as its title "the crisis of anomie." Despite being a graduate student in philosophy, I had never even heard of the term ‘anomie,’ and even after looking it up its connection to the chapter topic wasn’t always apparent. What’s most remarkable about this lexical choice is that at no point in the chapter does Cootsona define the term. For readers looking to Cootsona to understand the more difficult parts of Lewis, I don’t think this is going to help.

Still, the overall aim of the book, which is to connect all of Lewis’ disparate writings on particular topics in a clear way, succeeds admirably. The book is a rich discussion of Lewis’ core ideas, and Cootsona tries to show them their practical application. If I were to pick one chapter as a stand-out, the sixth chapter on C. S. Lewis’ approach to reading the Bible is worth the price of the book by itself. Cootsona masterfully draws together C. S. Lewis’ notoriously unsystematic writings on the Bible into a coherent whole consisting of four core theses: (i) the Bible is authoritative for Christian living because of its role in the church and because it bears witness to the Word, Jesus Christ; (ii) the Bible has flaws but it nonetheless is the bearer of the Word of God; (iii) the Bible includes myth, fable, parable, and poetry, but none of these genres are necessarily fiction; (iv) and lastly, the Bible influences us by forming us, not by learning a theory about it. While I have long thought Lewis’ approach to scripture is the most sensible, Cootsona brought out a lot of subtleties in Lewis’ thought that I had not noticed.

As I said, this book is best for those looking for thoughtful reflection in response to the universal experiences of all people, and Christians in particular. Cootsona is pastoral throughout, attempting to always leave the reader with life lessons that are applicable as well as encouraging. Highly recommended overall! 

Monday, June 15, 2015

More Thoughts on the Future of Science and Religion

Alfred North Whitehead wrote almost ninety years ago in his book Science and the Modern World
“When we consider what religion is for mankind and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.” 
We are far from Whitehead’s generation, but the exhortation still has merit. Therefore, following Whitehead I pose the question: What will this interaction look like in the future?

To determine the future (as I have argued already in this blog), we need to ask emerging adults (age 18-30), because they will increasingly set the agenda for how this question is answer and particularly whether they find an easy détente between the two. The most immediate response is that there are some challenging statistics. According the noted researchers Christian Smith and Kyle Longest, 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the statement that the teachings of religion and science conflict. And more than half (57 percent) disagreed with the statement "My views on religion have been strengthened by discoveries of science.” 

It would seem that the forces of science and religion are locked in a deadly battle.

Various surveys  and my qualitative research, however, suggests something different—namely, that emerging adults are not as personally negative about the compatibility between science and religion, more that they have heard others argue for incompatibility. Perhaps they have heard about the conflict between the two (maybe they watched Bill Nye and Ken Ham on TV or seen some YouTube clips of Richard Dawkins or Ray Comfort), but they themselves are quite interested in finding a response. So, though they know that warfare is in the air, many emerging adults, when asked, generally are not adherents. If anywhere it would seem that the resistance is with religious dogma, which prevents those of faith from engaging with the insights of science. Yet, as Elaine Ecklund has pointed out, religious believers are remarkably interested in science, at about the same percentage as the wider culture. This all makes sense of one of the most consistent responses I received in interviews with students: Travis, after looking at the interaction of science and religion from the perspective of history and philosophical critique, concluded, “I’m really interested to hear from someone who’s thought about these issues.” Though many emerging adults may perceive conflict, they would like to hear thoughtful voices from either side that move beyond warfare. This generation has been fatigued by the culture wars.
But these nuances do not fully exhaust the varieties of responses to the question of how to related religion and science. I will simply mention some briefly now and plan to explicate them more fully explicate them in future posts. I note that there are emerging adults who are turned off by the church’s unwillingness to embrace mainstream science as David Kinnamon’s study, published in You Lost Me, demonstrated. That is one clear analysis of the growth of the “Nones” among 18-30 year olds (those who respond “None” to the question “What religious affiliation are you?”), which currently hovers around 30-35%. And there are remarkable amounts of emerging adults in the United States who pull together religion with “traditional American values.” That seems to be the best way to understand the growing voice of anti-evolutionists who combine that with conservative politics, which is notably contrasted with those who are in the mainline religions, who are more likely to ascribe to the truth of evolutionary theory than the wider public, according to the Pew Report. And there are certainly other voices, such as the students who blend a variety of spiritual insights, certainly not simply Christian, but other religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Wiccan practices, as well.

Ultimately,  the future is potentially fraught with less certainty than the past and does not yield a clear winner. Yet, despite whatever problems and/or challenges that lie ahead, the sketch of this variegated interaction of science and religion seems more interesting than any simple caricature. And then, one final question looms: what role will you and I play?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Review of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics IV/4

This summer I'm working to improve my scholarship through carefully reading significant books in three fields: systematic theology, science and religion, and literary fiction. For each book, I will write a brief review, which summarize the work and offer a short critique and which will appear on my blog. This then is the first in a series...

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/4 (1967), trans. G. W. Bromiley, T&T Clark

But the personal faith of the candidate is indispensable to baptism.”

Karl Barth introduces this part-volume by admitting that his magisterial Church Dogmatics, even after six million words and thirteen part-volumes, will remain “an opus imperfectum” (vii). He notes that this present Christian ethics, particularly the Sacraments, as a “free and active answer of man” to God’s work and word of grace (ix) and that his doctrine opposes “the custom, or abuse, of infant baptism” (x). He foresees out of this that, with this, his last major publication, he is “thus about to make a poor exit with it. So be it!” (xii) Through this introduction, I got the sense that the reason Barth decided to publish this fragment was his passion in attacking infant baptism.
      Barth begins the actual explication of his doctrine by affirming that the foundation of the Christian life is one’s “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (2), or alternatively, “the event of the Christian life” (3), how one becomes a Christian (4). My former teacher at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, Timothy Lull, used to quip that Barth’s one response to all theological questions was “Jesus Christ!” Though a quip, to a great degree, it is true and certainly a way of summarizing Barth’s concern here: the change that occurs in the individual “has its ground and commencement in the history of Jesus Christ” (17) and nowhere else. How? By the act of the Holy Spirit (27), or put another way, through baptism with the Holy Spirit.
      This act—the baptism of the Holy Spirit—is not identical with water baptism, as Barth makes clear, even though the Spirit’s baptism necessarily connects us to other believers (31-32). This is expanded in the reflections on a “distinctive fellow-humanity” (36ff.) Barth now moves to the specifics of baptism with water, which he is clear to state, is not excluded, but indeed made possible and demanded by baptism with the Holy Spirit (41).
      After seven points on the biblical practice of water baptism, Barth unfolds three key items that fill the majority (over 75%) of this part-volume: (I) the basic, (II) the goal and (III) the meaning of Christian baptism (50).
      In his first major subsection of this paragraph, Barth seeks to discover the basis of baptism, “Why is it practiced, as we have seen, semper ubique et ab omnibus in the New Testament Church?” (50). Though one can point to Matthew 28:19 as the key biblical text (50f.), it is actually John’s baptism of Jesus at the Jordan that forms the basis for water baptism (54ff.) To my mind, this is a somewhat unusual way to find the basis for Christian baptism, but naturally Barth offers an extended exegesis (61-7) to offer a biblical basis for his point. Essentially, Jesus was baptized from below, with water, at the same time as he was baptized from above, with the Holy Spirit (65).
      This act demonstrated both Jesus’s submission to the will of God and his commission as Son of God and Messiah (see 68), who will, as we’ll see in the next subsection, baptizes with the Holy Spirit (70). That then is the goal of baptism. Baptism with water looks forward to baptism with the Holy Spirit (71), that is, God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ through the Spirit (72). (Does one here begin to notice a move that will lead Barth to criticize infant baptism? Namely, that baptism is a “human work of basic confession” in which the church associates themselves “with those who are newly joining it” [73]). It is also, and decisively, different from John’s baptism for several reasons (75ff.), even if they are the same baptism (85) and that John’s baptism looked forward, baptism in Jesus’s name was in fulfillment.
      The third subsection, on the meaning of baptism, fills over half of CD IV/4 (100ff.). It does not take many pages (at least given his loquaciousness) for Barth to consider the meaning of mysterion and sacramentum (108-9), then all the passages in the New Testament (111-27) for him to make the case that baptism is not a “mystery or sacrament” as it has been understood theologically. In other words, baptism “is not to be understood as a divine work or word of grace which purifies man and renews him” (128). Its character is “as a true and genuine human action which responds to the divine act and word” (128). In that light, it is no surprise that baptism is not “part of the traditional and normative pattern of human life” because it must be seen by the candidate “in the obedience of faith” (133). Baptism, for Barth, is an act of obedience and hope. “They say Yes to this Yes [that is, God’s “valid, absolutely trustworthy and victorious Yes”]” (161).
A major part of this subsection begins with Barth’s turning to infant baptism, which either starts on page 164 with a short treatment of the history of baptismal practice (i.e., it has departed from the time of the New Testament Church when both baptized and baptizer knew what they were doing), or on 165 with the actual words “Infant baptism… is, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (Qu. 74) the baptism of young children, usually the newly born infants of Christian parents, i.e., of those who in some way belong to the Church by their own confession.” It has not been mentioned so far, but its rejection has been presupposed by the fact that the baptized must make a decision of faith (166). For this reason, Barth can speak of the “astonishing possibility of infant baptism” (166). He notes that infant baptism does not appear materially a part of the wider theology of the Reformers (169-70), and that both Luther and Calvin quickly move to carps and invectives toward their opponents on this front (170-1), even invoking Satan’s direct work in their attacks on infant baptism. Barth finds no exegetical basis for infant baptism, e.g., in Mark 19:13f where Jesus welcomes little children, or in Acts 2:39 where the promise if also for your children (179-83). These are simply not texts about infant baptism, nor applicable for its practice. Notably—at least to this reviewer—he asserts that infant baptism is—with a nod back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1937 phrase from The Cost of Discipleship—“cheap grace” (183). (Later, on page 209, Barth calls it “the grace that is disposable” and that “does not help, save, or sustain.”) Why? Infant baptism takes away the need for God’s liberation, their decision (184). Note that I am leaving Barth’s apposition because human decision and God’s will are inextricably linked for him. What of vicarious faith, as in the paralytic from Mark 2 that was brought to Jesus by his friends? This form of faith is only for others to be “liberated to believe for ourselves” (186). And subsequently, Barth makes this (for him) lapidary statement (one has to record these whenever they occur in his loquacious expositions): “But the personal faith of the candidate is indispensable to baptism” (186). Soon enough, and after responding to some final reasons often presented for infant baptism, Barth declares, “Enough of this tiresome matter! Theology can and should do no more than advise the Church” (194). Even though infant baptism is “an ancient ecclesiastical error” (ibid.).
      Starting on page 195, Barth returns to the theme of hope (as the twin to obedience, which he dealt with earlier and which led him to the pages on infant baptism). One has the sense that “the horse is smelling the barn,” and that Barth is moving swiftly toward the close of this part-volume. Indeed there are under twenty pages left. Christians don’t look back to baptism (Luther’s reditus ad baptistum), but forward in mission from it (“conversion and progressio baptizati,” 202). Baptism is “obedience to God’s command performed in freedom” and “a grateful response to God’s efficacious and manifest grace” (202). Even in spite of baptism “compromised and denied” (204), the Church does not look in hope to itself, but to Jesus Christ (206-7). And thus, “The final thing to be said is that the meaning of the act of baptism consists in this prayer [of hope]” (209). He finishes with an exposition of 1 Peter 3:21, “a description not unlike a definition”: baptism is “not as the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but as the request to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (210-13). This exegetical excursus is both formally and materially fitting for Barth’s theology, a theology based ultimately on Scripture’s witness as the Word of God. Since it is also a call to ethical action, or a “good conscience” (syneideseos agathos), this is also a fitting end to this part-volume on the “ethics of reconciliation.” Thus Karl Barth offers—and one senses a bit hastily—the final words of his magisterial thirty-six year project, Church Dogmatics.
      Overall, this commentator is led to write that, as in all of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the reader comes away having learned a great deal more about baptism—especially its history, its practice, and the theological controversies surrounding it. It’s hard to deny that Barth has done his homework. At the same time, there is the hint of some frustration that goaded him into publishing this unfinished part-volume, which, as he noted in the introduction, that goad is the practice of infant baptism. One might be tempted to read the entire part-volume as one long introduction to—and then briefer exposition of—his support for adult baptism only. But that seems a bit dismissive of the intensive work Barth does with biblical and theological traditions and of the broader theology of baptism he presents.
      Above all, the issue for Barth is that baptism must be a decisive change; baptism in the Holy Spirit leads to true Christian conversion. I, for one, have not yet decided to change my baptismal practice. Nevertheless, I can attest, as a Presbyterian pastor who has performed and seen many infant baptisms, that the primary concern of the congregation is the cuteness of the baby or toddler, and rarely an obedient and hopeful response to the Gospel. And I don’t take this as tangential, but as a signal that there is nothing the infants are doing to signal baptism as a response of faith on their part. Barth has done yeoman’s service as regards—even in, by his normal standards—this brief treatment of the doctrine of baptism. In the west, we live in a culture that has little use for cultural Christianity, or perhaps better, Christendom, of the kind that Barth cavils against and that is implied in the practice of infant baptism. (Since everyone in this culture is a Christian, whether they decide to be or not, why not baptize infants?) I am not certain how many minds he has changed since 1967 (and he writes on page 194 that had “only the faintest hope” that his theological reflections would be heeded), but I would advocate that the Christian community should still read CD IV/4 almost fifty years after its publication… because we are increasingly in post-Christendom even more than when it was first written. The question remains: As western culture continues to slip from the clutches of the Christian Church, will we be able to release this form of Christendom—or at least discuss letting it loose—or will it cling to infant baptism as a vestige of our diminishing power?