Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Science and the Natural Knowledge of God

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
Nicene Creed

Note: This set of posts is also finding its way to the (re)new(ed) Scientists in Congregations website. (By the way, if there’s interest, I can supply real, live footnotes on request.)

I will plunge into explicating God the Creator. By beginning with the doctrine of God’s creating the universe and thus humankind, we place natural knowledge of God through science or other forms of human knowledge (and the related terms, general revelation and natural theology) in the appropriate context. (This indeed is a systematics, not an apologetics.) Consequently, I will argue that God’s creating this world implies that all human beings possess some natural, though vague, knowledge and thus yearning for God.
      On the way there, it is important to recap: This theology must work for the church. I mean that ambiguous phrase in two ways: It must work to make the church better. It must serve the church. Naturally, the most significant representative is Karl Barth’s magisterial Church Dogmatics, which he explicitly inserted the German word kirchliche in the title to his dogmatics (“church” as an adjective) to demonstrate that theology must preach. It has to be kerygmatic. Theology, according to Barth in CD 1/1, “is a function of the Church.”  Put another way, theology must work for the church in that it makes the church a better place. In my reading, too many theologies are written from the perspective of those disdainful of the actual life of Christian communities. In this light, I will expound a bit of systematic theology, one principally taking in the insights of science, the necessities of the church, and the insights of Scripture.
      In working with a type of “creative mutual interaction” that Robert J. Russell sets out in Time in Eternity within the typology of a Lakatosian “research program,” I am convinced that, in the interaction of science and theology, theology must grasp, then not violate, the insights of science. (I have in mind Imre Lakatos’s theory of science. See especially, Lakatos's chapter, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge.) As John Polkinghorne rightly argues, a scientifically-informed theology demonstrates that we are inherently motivated to believe what is truth and that our beliefs correspond to reality within the framework of critical realism. Simply stated, Polkinghorne argues, in Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, that theology is “motivated belief.” Put in more traditional language, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature have the same Author, and therefore do not contradict one another.
      In this light, natural knowledge of God provides a key test case for applying scientific insights to theology, not least because scientists commonly make statements about God’s existence or non-existence. In addition, a natural knowledge of God might be demonstrated, or at least supported, by the insights of science. And finally, the scientific study of nature also flows from a commitment (whether explicit or not) that the world is rational and ordered, which historically has flowed from the confession that God created this world. Charles Townes, in a lecture on the relationship between the Christian faith and modern science, summarizes this connection: “For successful science of the type we know, we must have faith that the universe is governed by reliable laws and, further, that these laws can be discovered by human inquiry.” How then can we bring the insights about the natural world into our doctrine of God as Creator? That is the general tenor of this section. More specifically here, is there a natural knowledge of God, how does that relate to science, and what does this mean for the church?
      At times in my work as a pastor, and in response to this search for a reasonably intricate theology, I can hear someone reply: 
Last weekend, I spent time in the mountains, gazing across a cool, still lake, listening to the wind through the trees. I was able to be silent. In the quiet of nature, I directly encountered God. I learned more about God there than I ever do in a worship service. On Sunday mornings, I hear about God. There I actually touched my Creator.
      In many ways, this natural knowledge of God is anti-ecclesial. It poses the question: Why do I need church when I have this direct experience? Why do I need a message from the pulpit when there are “sermons in stones” (to quote William Shakespeare)? From my pastoral experience—and, really, my experience generally—many people, religious or not, find an almost palpable presence of God in creation. And here a few definitions help. In theological language, we enter the realm of general revelation, where God is available “generally,” to all human beings. In many ways, my reflections on the natural knowledge of God constitute a form of general revelation, which also implies God’s benevolence toward all human beings, whether believer or not. As the Gospel of Matthew phrases it (5:45): God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.” Theologians contrast it—or complement it—with special revelation, God’s particular acts and communication with the covenant people of Israel and the church. The key point to emphasize is that in either general or special revelation, God is still the One revealing. God is the One who must speak in self-revelation. In this chapter, I will only briefly touch on a related area, natural theology, which takes the data of nature and seeks to build a theological system, and particularly what it means within the critical interaction of science and theology.
      I find Alister McGrath’s phrase in his Scientific Theology, Vol. 1, succinct and profound: “there is an intrinsic capacity within the created order to disclose God.” This creates (to use Wolfhart Pannenberg’s phrase) a “nonthematic” relationship to God. This relationship arrives from bearing God’s image, the imago dei (which I will develop in the next section). To use John Calvin’s phrase, it is a sensus divinitatis, or “sense of the divine” (which I will also develop in a subsequent post). This sensus divinitatis provides a background for a more robust and articulated faith in God. It is endemic to human life and therefore an important component toward building a theology for the church informed by science.
      To be clear, this natural knowledge of God poses a challenge. Here I am responding to this challenge by formulating the proper, useful, and even necessary place for the awareness of God in nature and thus in ourselves (our reflection on nature and our understanding of our own desires), as well as what science has discovered about the natural world. Put with utmost economy of words: A natural awareness of divinity is necessary, but not sufficient, for our understanding of God. In this regard, I am steering a path alongside Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, seeking to avoid Barth’s abhorrence of “natural theology” and of Vatican I’s rather overblown declaration that God can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason from created things.
      Certainly science and human reflection are not the only loci for discovery a basic awareness of divinity. It is also implicit in the Church’s confession that God is “the Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” To know that God has created humankind implies that we are created for God. As Psalm 42:1 declares, “O God, I yearn for you.” When God created the man and the woman in the divine image, it means that they are created for relationships. We read it in the first pages of the Scripture.
      Both the Priestly (Genesis 1:1-2:3) and the Jahwist (Genesis 2:4b-25) accounts of creation describe relational aspect of the image of God. As an aspect of this relationality, God can communicate with men and women. In Genesis 1:29-30, God speaks directly to them—communication represents a significant form of relating. Because human beings are made in God’s image, we can enter into a relationship with God, and in fact, this relationship with God is the highest call of human beings. Jesus, later in the Scripture, echoed this with an invitation: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15.12, italics added) and even goes so far as to call his followers “friends” (John 15.15), indicating how intimate this relationship can be.
      In Genesis 1:27, creation as male and female implies that human beings are to relate to one another, for which marriage (Genesis 2:24) is the most definitive human institution. Relationality is also demonstrated by the fact that both male and female are created in God’s image, and therefore neither is definitively the human being. Humanity is only adequately represented by both sexes.
      Earlier in the text of Genesis 2, Adam is told to have “dominion” over the animals—better understood as stewardship like a good king and names the animals (Genesis 2:19).
The scholarship on this passage is immense. Here I will simply cite Douglas John Hall, “Under the conditions of imperial Christianity, it was not stewardship but lordliness that appealed to the mentality of the church’s policy makers. Thus, historic Christianity has seemed either to ignore and escape from the world, or else wish to possess it” (The Steward, 82) In this context, I am reminded of RenĂ© Descartes’ notorious phrase that we are “masters and possessors of nature.” Hall continues his analysis and reclaiming of the concept of human stewardship: it means that we must take in action role in tending creation and abandon “forms of religion that denigrate the natural world, that view the world as primarily a cache of resources to be exploited for human ends” (ibid.).
In the following curses of Genesis, Adam and Eve have a disrupted relationship with earth, e.g., that there will be toil in farming and “thorn and thistles” (Genesis 3:17-19).
      The Ten Commandments (found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) exemplify these relationships. The first four begin with God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). As creatures, our essential relationship is with our Creator. As distinct from other creatures, we can return praise to God. In the “second tablet” of the Decalogue addresses human relationships such as do not steal, do not commit adultery. And there is a hint of the relationship with the rest of creation: the Sabbath command sets up not only rest for human beings but also for the “ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock” (Deuteronomy 5:14).
      There is also an implied relationship with self that is necessary for human moral reflection, but comes most clearly into view in Paul’s tortured self-reflection in Romans 7:7-25, encapsulated in his cry of individual incomprehension, “I do not understand my own actions” (Romans 7:15). (Incidentally, whether Paul is speaking pre- or post-conversion is not relevant in this exposition.) Proper relationality means harmony; disruption, disharmony and incomprehension reveal a tortured and sinful relation. But for the purposes here, it is a relation nonetheless.
      To state this more systematically, Genesis 1-2 sets up four basic relationships: with God, with other human beings, with ourselves (implied), with the rest of creation (other animals, plants, and the earth).
      This essentially human relationality—especially in our relation to God—sets up a natural knowledge of God. Romans 1:18-20 and 2:14-15 constitute the locus classicus for the natural knowledge of God, or indeed, a natural theology. In Romans 1:19-20, Paul notes this awareness:
19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
As Paul lays out his case for why all stand before God in need of Christ’s redemption, he argues that all people know “God” (or perhaps better “god”—the garden variety word theos is used here). As James D. G. Dunn writes, “some sort of natural theology is involved here…. Paul is certainly conversant with and indeed indebted to a strong strand of like-minded Hellenistic Jewish wisdom theology.” Dunn notes Wisdom of Solomon 12-15, especially verses 19-32.
A comparison text is Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God has put “eternity into our hearts.” Overall I agree with the exposition of Joseph Fitzmeier in his commentary on Romans that Paul is indicating humankind has some innate knowledge of God. I cannot agree with Karl Barth in his A Shorter Commentary on Romans, “Paul does not dream of paying the Gentiles anything resembling a compliment and of trying to find in their religions some point of contact for the understanding of the Gospel…..”
Still, for Paul, this knowledge remains relatively vaguely—only his “eternal power” and “deity” or “divine nature.”
      Additionally, in Romans 2, Paul is arguing that both Jews and Gentiles stand universally in need of Christ’s redemption. He is moving toward the key statement, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) to be resolved by the redemption in Christ “But God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In the course of this argument, he appeals to the conscience of the Gentiles, and their ability to do “what the law requires.” Specifically, in Romans 2:14-16, Paul writes
14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
Paul’s point here is not about natural theology per se, but that the Gentiles have some innate or natural knowledge of God’s moral will. Perhaps Paul is referring to Stoic notions, Jewish Wisdom concepts, or both. In any event, he clearly presents some natural knowledge God, expanding on the previous statement in 1:18-20 about God’s “invisible power and deity” to include now sufficient knowledge of God’s “law” or moral that all will be judged by the standard of the gospel of Christ, by the one Paul proclaims “his gospel.”

      Put together, these biblical passages assert that we are created for God, that we know the general nature of God (especially his power and otherness as deity), and that we have a moral conscience. More on what that means in light of science in the following post...

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