Posted by: dacalu | 28 October 2014

Rhyme, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

Does God break the laws of nature?

If yes, can we detect these interventions and, thus, prove the existence of God?

If no, how can we say God cares for us as individuals?

I am beginning to think that both questions miss the forest for the trees.

Several authors have suggested that God acts at the quantum level.  The idea has never appealed to me because I viewed it in a particular way.

1) I saw it as an appeal to something we don’t understand well – quantum indeterminacy – to explain something else we don’t understand well.

2) I saw it as an appeal to ignorance; because we can’t predict what will happen at the quantum scale, God may be acting there invisibly.

3) I saw it as an “interventionist” approach to chance and miracles.  Step 1: God set up a universe with probabilistic laws. Step 2: At times, God intervenes with a hand on the roulette wheel, stopping the ball in a particular slot.  The rest of the time probability applies.

Today, for the first time, I thought of another option. We tend to emphasize the irregularities of chance, the unpredictability, but that’s only one side of the coin. Chance only gets interesting when it is somewhat regular. Think of our conviction that all six sides of a fair die are equally likely to end up face up.  Probability has to do with things that are regular and predictable, but only when you consider them in batches.  I really don’t know which number will come up when I roll the die, but I’m confident that if I roll it 6000 times, each number will appear about about 1000 times.  That is a regularity.

It offends against my scientific and statistical sensibilities to say that God first creates the distribution and second removes one event from it.  This is intervention and it goes against the regularity of the system.

There is another way.

What if God, existing outside of time, plans things at multiple levels? What if God orders the distribution of events while selecting, them, so that every event is chosen and the collection of events forms a regular pattern? Consider couplets in poetry. Most poets do not begin with pairs of rhymed words and then build verses around them. Instead they start with a theme and search for words that rhyme. So, step 1 has God providentially choosing an event and step 2 has God pairing the events up so that they have statistical regularity.

Personally, I think of God outside time, so neither step actually comes before the other, but seeing them in this order removes the conflict for me. It makes sense that God would harmonize the universe.  True, you cannot prove that God exists based on some inconsistency with the larger pattern – but I’m not sure I like what that opposition says about God anyway.  True, you cannot use the success of the righteous to prove either Providence or righteousness – but again, I’ve never noticed that the righteous are more successful.  That would be a strange sort of Christianity, where self-sacrifice, was always enlightened self-interest.

So, I’m okay with God acting at the quantum level, as long we think of God acting at every other level as well.  And, I’m okay with God acting (providentially) with care for individuals AND acting (as sovereign) to set the laws of nature, so long as we are careful to note that these are not different types of action. God rhymes while composing, a trait I associate with the better poets.

Posted by: dacalu | 6 October 2014

God, Darwin, and My College Philosophy Class

Professor David Barash likes bringing up uncomfortable subjects, like evolution and creationism. I commend him for it. I also commend him for many of his conclusions. Many college students have faith incompatible with science. Others might need some mental gymnastics to accommodate both science and religion. It is not the responsibility of biology teachers to do that work for them. Biology only makes sense in light of evolutionary theory and that can be tricky enough without trying to cover metaphysics at the same time.

Why then does David insist on starting his biology class with a “Talk” on metaphysics? In a recent essay for the New York Times, he speaks about how he comes to these conclusions and how he presents them to students. He speaks of “religion’s current intellectual instability” and states that students “who insist on retaining and respecting both [science and religion] will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.”

I teach a course on the history of science and religion and want students thinking critically about both. David’s conclusions may be spot on, but his arguments need work. He conflates several major issues and oversimplifies theology. Epistemology – the philosophy of how we know what we know – can clear up several of them quite quickly. Best not to confuse mental gymnastics for the rudimentary stretches anyone should do before exercise.

David confuses the failure of a doctrine with the failure of science to support it. Apparently only science can back up religious beliefs and only science should. This is patently false. All of us regularly rely on knowledge generated by appeals to authority, majority opinion, personal experience, and pragmatism just to mention some of the more rational appeals. Science does not hold the monopoly on truth. We must have one more step. How else do we find truth and what do you do when scientific evidence and other forms of evidence collide?

Here again I agree with David, wholeheartedly. Unlike Stephen Jay Gould, I think science and faith collide on a regular basis. I think we have free will. I must if I am to get through the day, though science tells me it is far less free than I think. Similarly, both biology and Christian theology have a stake in what we mean by life, death, and humanity. Unlike Barash (and a surprising number of creationists) I don’t think science must justify my beliefs. I really am okay getting my knowledge elsewhere and, on a very rare occasion, allowing that knowledge to trump science. Luckily, in my brand of Christianity (Anglican) the problem almost never arises. Mostly I hold religious beliefs compatible with, but not dependent on, empirical evidence.

The problem comes from dependence, not rejecting independence. A few Christian apologists (over the last few centuries) made their beliefs dependent on science. Paley’s argument from design was only one of many attempts to hitch the theological wagon to a scientific horse. Most Christian theologians have made the much less radical claim that science and theology, when done properly, will not contradict one another. They’re happy for science to agree with them, but expect theological arguments – appeals to scripture, tradition, revelation, and reason – to do most of the work.

Human uniqueness provides a perfect example. Evolutionary biology demonstrates the continuity of humans, as animals, with other animals. Thomas Aquinas knew humans were animals in the 13th century. Origen knew it in the 3rd. This is not news to Christians, though I am grateful to Darwin and others for pointing out exactly how it works. Human uniqueness in need not be a scientific claim. It has nothing to do with being central or complex and everything to do with having God’s spirit moving within us. Some Christians need science to prove we have something extra; most do not. Most think the Bible is enough.

Theodicy provides a second example. Who could argue pampered Americans know more of suffering than rural Judean shepherds? Evolutionary biology rules out Romantic ideals about noble savages and God’s Providence in nature, but even Isaiah recognized the improbability of the wolf lying down with the lamb. We didn’t need science to understand the prevalence of unmerited suffering. A smidgeon of theological insight reveals that the author of Job actually struggled with this in the 6th century BCE. The book provides a complex reflection on unmerited suffering and fails to provide the simple answer that David suggests. Has he read Job?

Science falls apart when it tries to weigh in on these questions of value. It works so well precisely because value, intention, and preference are carefully bracketed out. It takes hard work to be a scientist, because you have to be ever so careful in how you put together your model of the truth. You have to know what you can and can’t include. In that way it is very much like in theology. I’m glad Dr. Barash teaches biology. I respect his science and his teaching. I just hope he’ll leave out the philosophy and theology until he’s properly warmed up.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 October 2014

Thoughts on Teilhard de Chardin

Many of my friends have asked for my thoughts on Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit paleontologist (1881-1955) who wrote compellingly on science and religion. He managed to fuse theology and evolutionary biology into a systematic and yet mystical view of the world.  I have great respect for his endeavor, his commitment, and his learning.  I find his system to be unhelpful.  Briefly, I would say this:

Chardin ran afoul of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Though I am unclear on the details, the gist is that he was too unorthodox.  He favored a weakening of the line between natural and supernatural, elevating the goodness of creation and de-emphasizing the Fall.  I’m on board for that.  It seems to me, though that he went too far.  He identifies Christ with the “Omega Point” the culmination of evolution in time.  I suppose I can wrap my head around that if I say that we will find, at the end of time, that we have come into complete harmony with Christ who is the all in all, and yet I feel this perspective takes something away from Jesus as a concrete human, found at a specific point in history.  Christ is more than we can ask or imagine, and yet it is by concrete meditation on the man Jesus that find hope.  That seems to be the greatest blessing of Christianity, that it is discrete, concrete, and tangible in it’s approach to God.  So, while Chardin may be right in this regard, I don’t believe he is useful.
As to science, Chardin’s paleontology may have been mainstream when he started, but the current shifted.  The 1930’s saw the rise of the Modern Synthesis and a very intentional rejection of progressive evolution (orthogenesis). Arguably, this was the defining moment for evolutionary biology as a science.  Modern biologists distance themselves from Herbert Spencer and others who saw evolution as evidence for improvement in the world.  The concept of improvement requires a concept of better, but It is unclear how a scientist would measure “better.” It is also clear that when we arbitrarily set “better” we find that evolution can not be relied upon to take us in that direction.
So, if Chardin’s major contribution is to reconcile faith with modern science, I fear he has failed. His consilience reaches neither applied theology nor respectable science.

Posted by: dacalu | 21 September 2014

Why Corporations Are the Zombie Apocalypse

What if the Zombie Apocalypse already happened, but no one noticed?

They’re not human. Please tell me you can see it. I feel like I’m living in a horror movie, with all these bodies walking around, talking, working, and eating people’s brains, but no-one notices. Brian Pellot posted a great blog joking that corporations deserve all human rights. They own property. The Supreme Court treats them like citizens, with free speech and freedom of religion. Why not go all the way?

Do they have hearts and minds? That’s what I want to know. Perhaps if they did, it wouldn’t be so bad. But, no. They borrow hearts and minds – dare I say it, souls – from their stockholders. It isn’t really a mindless hoard of corporations, sucking on the cerebellum of America. It’s a shockingly small number of investors who have managed to export their ideals into countless corporate bodies.

There are nearly 6 million corporations paying taxes in the US, or one for every 53 people. That doesn’t sound so bad until you think seriously about how many corporations are controlled by how few capitalists. One voice can echo in ten throats, one hand can manipulate a hundred arms. When every corporation has the rights of an individual, a few individuals can acquire the rights of many.

We believe in one person, one vote. We believe in a marketplace of ideas, and that marketplace is slowly filling up with the borrowed souls of corporations – zombies that feed the desires of the privileged few who can afford to replicate themselves. If you’re a corporation reading this, then it’s already too late. But if you’re a human, please speak up. I don’t know if I can face them alone.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 September 2014

Sympathy, Empathy, and the Bible

The Bible has been a great help to me in times of trouble. It has been a consolation and a joy, but perhaps not in the way people commonly hear that, so let me say something about help and about what the Bible means to me.

I frequently confuse the words sympathy and empathy. One day, working the word mines – that is to say writing – I came across this animation that explained it beautifully. The short improved both my language and my ability to care for others. Empathy means entering into the suffering of another, metaphorically climbing into the hole with them and saying, I’m here with you. Sympathy, on the other hand, usually requires you to maintain “perspective” and separation so that you can help them out of the hole. It is, in the worst sense, pity or charity, in place of real compassion. It means trying to solve a problem for someone instead of solving it with them. In bureaucracy this may be the best course of action; in psychology, it almost never is. You cannot improve people’s mental state for them, but you can be there with them and help them climb out. [I think this applies to the state of their emotions, their soul, and will as well, but that is a longer argument.]

The Bible speaks of God’s empathy for me, and allows me to empathize with many others who have suffered what I suffer. In the darkest of times, I can turn to those who have gone before and take comfort from knowing that they have been there. I can even look to how they responded without feeling a need to respond in the same way. They travel the journey with me.

I love God. As with any relationship, there are ups and downs, so sometimes I need to empathize with those who find their relationship with God troubling. I can look to Job. Job worried that life was not worth living. He thought God had been unjust and he spoke up about it. He ranted at God and about God, because sometimes it feels like God is a bit of a bastard. [This by the way, is one of the few insults Christians can get away with with impunity. Not a single member of Trinity has parents who were married. The sentiment is problematic, but that is exactly my point.] If I find myself in the very pit of despair and have trouble believing in God, Job is with me.

More often, God has been quite good to me, but seems to be holding out in one way or another. And then I can turn to Sarah. Sarah laughed when God promised her a son. She thought she was too old. The story does more than tell me Sarah was wrong – it tells me she was there. She felt as I do. I can empathize with her and she with me.

When I have failed, Peter stands with me. When I am lonely, John. When I am overwhelmed by others, Isaiah; by myself, Solomon. When God seems to be asking the impossible, Abraham, Moses, and Mary appear. When I doubt, Thomas. When I am doubted, Mary Magdalene. The Bible is so chock full of people suffering, it surprises me we read it at all. Remarkably often, things do not end perfectly in these stories. They do not end well by Earthly standards. Job gets a replacement family. Sarah ends up feuding with Hagar. Jesus and Peter are crucified. Mary loses her son and Moses never makes it to the promised land. The Bible has remarkably few concrete instructions for how to get to the promised land, but it is filled with people on their way. It has companions, with whom we can be in the midst of life.

Many modern Christians, but particularly Evangelicals and Pentecostals, want to turn the Bible into an instruction manual. They present it as a perfect record of God’s salvation or and eternal expression of God’s perfect servants. I respect these Christians in many ways, but cannot follow them in this. First, the Bible is a lousy instruction manual. It’s not concise, consistent, sequential, or by any means fool-proof. Most of these people turn out to be exceptionally bad role models. Even in the New Testament, look to Mark or Acts and you will find the disciples behaving in some rather dicey ways. Second, and more important, if they were perfect, it would rob me of true companionship. It would take away the empathy I have for them and, I believe, they for me. It would take away the God who is with me in the darkness and turn him into a repairman, who entered simply to change the light bulb. Part of the problem to be fixed is inside me, and I can be invited into that change, but I cannot be fixed.

I do not wish to deny the power of God. Indeed, I am a great defender of omnipotence and providence. But the Bible is not God. Nor is it a reference book on perfection. To turn the Bible into such a thing makes it an instrument of sympathy and not of empathy, an act of condescension and not of grace. At best it is gnosticism – to value propositions about faith over faith itself – and at worst idolatry – to confuse the creator with the created. Even if all the theological arguments fail, the pastoral issue remains.The Bible is most efficacious when it is narrative and companion, rather than didactic overlord.

I need companions more than I need idols. So, these are my people, and one of the greatest gifts of Christianity, not in spite of their suffering, but because of it.

Posted by: dacalu | 2 September 2014

Bite Size Jesus: Angels

The Author of Creation writes and orders reality. The author works with and through ministers who serve, counsel, and carry out plans for the story. The ones we know about have bodies, intelligence, and freewill just like us, but they are neither human nor once human. Because they focus on part of the Author’s work, they can help us understand God.

God is too big to comprehend. Angels give us small chunks of divinity that we can wrap our heads around. This is good; it allows us to see part of God’s work. It can also be dangerous; we can be tempted to confuse this part for the whole. We listen to angels because they can tell us where we fit in the story. We don’t worship angels (or listen to them uncritically) because they are only part of the whole.

Angels remind us that the story is bigger than our concerns. God does things that have nothing to do with us. Thus, angels talking to humans often begin by saying, “do not be afraid.” They are powerful and foreign, but also central to the plot of the story.

 

Notes on specific angels: The bible names only Michael and Gabriel among the angels. Michael appears in Daniel and Revelation (12.7) and takes the title of Archangel (high angel) in Jude (1.9). Michael leads the armies of heaven and acts as chief advocate for Israel and humanity. Gabriel appears in Daniel and the gospel of Luke, where he proclaims Jesus’ birth. Gabriel acts as God’s herald and chief messenger. Two other angels show up in the more popular disputed books of the Bible. Raphael appears throughout Tobit, and attends to marriage, healing, and pilgrimage. Uriel appears in 2 Esdras and Enoch, associated with wisdom and repentance.

Angels traditionally have neither sex nor gender, though for philosophical, linguistic, and cultural reasons are usually given a masculine pronoun.

In Hebrew

Michael – “Who is like God?”

Gabriel – “man of God”

Raphael – “God has healed”

Uriel – “God is my light”

Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2014

Bite Size Jesus: The Fall

If life is a good story with an Author who loves us, why is it so painful? Why do bad things happen? Christians remember a time (it could be historical or just figurative), when the earth was a garden, when only two humans walked among the trees, and the Author walked with them. Things were good.

The Fall refers to the break from that goodness: strife with the world, with one another, and with God. Christians think humans caused the break. The first humans ate fruit from a tree after God asked them not to. But this was not enough. God came to the humans and asked them what happened. First they hid. Then they blamed. The man blamed the woman and the woman blamed the snake. So, humans broke the rules then they broke fellowship. They did not care for the garden, the trees or the animals, or one another.

That is the situation we still find ourselves in, though it’s much harder for us now, because humans have been in the habit of selfishness for a very long time. We live in selfish communities. One of the goals of the community of Christ is to fix the break.

[Strangely, many tell this as a tale of disobedience; we suffer because we do not obey. In the Bible, harm does not come when the humans disobey, but when they don’t listen, hide, and cast blame. God does not punish them, but spells out the results of their actions then prevents them from doing further harm. Similarly, Paul does not speak of Adam’s disobedience, but his lapse. Christians, if this sounds odd to you, please read Genesis 2-3 and Romans 5 again.]

Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2014

The Life of the World and the Death of a Comedian

The first I heard of Robin Williams’ death was a Facebook post from my friend Shawn. He posted all of “O Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman, re-popularized by Williams’ movie Dead Poets Society. Shawn, like the students in the movie, was mourning the loss of a hero.

For my part, I posted a short reflection and a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.

“[I am] giving thanks for the life of Robin Williams, who amazingly took all of his pain and allowed it to illuminate and delight us. The best comedy has always come from troubled souls, who see more clearly some of the tragedies of life. He will be missed.

Into Your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Robin. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech You, a sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of Your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.”

It amazes me how much the internet has become part of our lives; both Shawn and I felt a need to share our grief online.

It was not until the next morning that I discovered how concerned some people were about the whole affair. Robin Williams committed suicide. Matt Walsh wrote a blog emphasizing this. He wants us to know that Robin took is own life; there is nothing heroic about that. It made me think hard about how I feel and what I mean when I celebrate the life that has just ended. It conjured questions of disease and free will and the meaning of life, something I study. It also touched on my faith and my belief that suicide is a bad choice.

When another friend asked me my opinion, I had to sit and think. It’s not an easy matter. Daniel McInerny criticized Walsh. He wants us to know how much our biochemistry and our health impact our choices. It was more than just a “bad choice.” It was influenced, perhaps even brought about by depression. Chris Attaway, argues against a too simple morality that judges people on what they cannot control. “We don’t expect people with Downs syndrome to perform rocket science. We don’t expect people with cerebral palsy to compete at the Olympic level.” Is there such a thing as not-guilty by reason of depression?

Walsh and McInerny and Attaway all make great points, but they have confused mourning and understanding. In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, I want to remember the good he did. I want to speak about what he meant for me. I want to pray for his soul, for his self, wherever it may be. I don’t think understanding what happened will help with any of that. And I fear worrying about it gets in the way of dealing with my own loss.

Let me say for the record – as a Christian, as a pastor, and as a theologian – I think suicide is a bad choice. It doesn’t work. It seems like an option when we are in pain, when we feel alone and powerless, when we don’t want to be where we are. And yet, suicide closes options for the future, it hurts people and pushes them further away. Suicide takes away what it promises to give – our chances for getting better. And that has real important to me, as one who’s considered it, one with friends who struggle with it, and others who, sadly, have made such a choice. This is a very important issue, but now is not the time.

Why do I focus on Robin’s life and not his manner of death?

First, publicizing suicide is a bad choice. We know that the idea of suicide is contagious. Prominent coverage, particularly for celebrities, makes the idea seem more feasible. Public condemnation may be better than public praise, but a brief informative report is better than both.

Second, I favor love over judgment in all cases and for all events. This can be a tough principle, but I find it really important for Christians. Before an action comes a time to discern, to debate, to persuade. After an action, we work at love and reconciliation. If I hope to change someone’s behavior in the future I might tell them how much harm they’ve done. With Robin, I wish him the best as he moves on.

Third, I must not confuse my own needs with those of others. Walsh tells us how important it is to him that he has a choice. I honor his sharing of that about himself, but I don’t think judging Robin empowers Walsh or anyone else. There’s something existential about choice and we have to grab it for ourselves.

Science and medicine can tell us something about our choices. We know that. Doctors treat depression as a medical condition because our biochemistry and mood are intertwined, and they influence our choices. Chemicals like serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), epinephrine, dopamine, and oxytocin profoundly impact the way we feel. It’s valuable to know that the drug Ecstasy can cause euphoria (serotonin high) and that it can also impair your ability to feel the same thing in the future. It’s helpful to know that our environment and choices change who we are and the choices we make – maybe even the choices we can make.

When the time comes, I’ll be happy to talk about the will we have and the will we don’t. I’d love to recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow all about the heuristics running in our heads. I’d love to recommend Kathleen Norris book Acedia and Me all about depression and despair, choice and spirituality. I’d love to tell you how important it is for us to know that we can make choices. Perhaps it will prevent us from making bad choices in the future. Cieply and Barnes point out how important work was for Robin. It was a way to fight depression. So, if I must talk about Robin’s demons, I will say this, he channeled the power of their attacks into making the world a better place.

To everything there is a season. I believe passionately about free will and our need to study and debate how much control we have over our lives. I care deeply about theology and meaning and the value of life. We must reflect on our priorities in the summertime, so that when winter comes we know what matters. And, when a beloved friend dies, it is time to mourn. It is time to affirm the life he led and the lives we lead. That too is a choice.

For now, I come to bury Caesar and to praise him. For myself and for my readers, I’ll choose life. That’s were our attention should be. I’ll praise what was praiseworthy and forgive that which was hurtful. I remember the good he did and the good I may do. And I pray, as always and with the grace of God, that that will be enough.

Posted by: dacalu | 14 August 2014

Martial Arts Booklist

In looking over some old files, I see that I put together a list of good martial arts books in 2004 for Enso Center. It looks like it could use some updates, so feel free to recommend in the comments.

The Classics:

Tao Te Ching   Lao Tzu (Trans. Stephen Mitchell, Thomas Cleary)

The Art of War   Sun Tzu (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

I Ching   (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

Way of Chuang Tzu   Chuang Tzu (Trans. Thomas Merton)

The Book of Five Rings   Musashi Miyamoto (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

Muye Dobu Tongji   (Trans. Sang H. Kim)

 

 

Modern works of interest:

Korean Hapkido   Kwang Sik Myung

The Art of Peace   Morihei Ueshiba (Trans. John Stevens)

Budo   Morihei Ueshiba (Trans. John Stevens)

The Encyclopedia of Taekwondo   Hong Hi Choi

Aikido   Koichi Tohei

A Road that Anyone Can Walk: Ki   Koichi Tohei

Aikido and the Harmony of Nature   Mitsugi Saotome

Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere   Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook

Secrets of the Samurai   Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook

Zen in the Art of Archery   Eugen Herrigel

The Tao of Pooh   Benjamin Hoff

The Te of Piglet   Benjamin Hoff

Tao: The Watercourse Way   Alan Watts

The Way of Zen   Alan Watts

Way of the Peaceful Warrior   Dan Millman

T’ai Chi’s Ancestors   Douglas Wile

How to Win Friends and Influence People   Dale Carnegie

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense   Suzette Haden Elgin

The Relaxation Response   Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper

Beyond the Relaxation Response   Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper

Flow   Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Taekwondo for Dummies   Jennifer Lawler

Martial Arts for Dummies   Jennifer Lawler

Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People   John Corcoran and Emil Farkas

Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition, History, Pioneers   John Corcoran, Emil Farkas

and Stuart Sobel

 

 

Works for children:

Taekwondo Dinosaurs   Y. H. Park et al.

Education for Peace Series   Terrence Webster-Doyle

Zen Shorts   Jon Muth

The Asiapak comic Series   Tsai Chih Chung and Brian Bruya

- Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness [Chuang Tzu]

- Sunzi Speaks: The Art of War [Sun Tzu]

- Zhuangzi Speaks [Chuang Tzu]

- The Tao Speaks: Lao Tzu’s Whispers of Wisdom [Lao Tzu]

- The Dao of Zhuangzi: The Harmony of Nature [Chuang Tzu] (by Zhizhong Cai)

- Confucius Speaks: Words to Live by [Kun Fu Tzu]

Posted by: dacalu | 12 August 2014

History of Theology

In a recent post, I set forth a three part history of knowledge, drawing on, but not identical to, Michel Foucault’s archaeology of human sciences in The Order of Things.  It goes something like this:

 

Period                                            Knowledge is

1300-1600 The Renaissance         hidden in the world

1600-1800 The Enlightenment      best way of comprehending the world

1800-1950 The Modern Period      historical state of belief about the world

 

Foucault goes on to label the categorization of knowledge in these periods as Similitude (recognizing the hidden correspondences), Taxonomy (applying the right framework within which everything fits), and History (understanding the progression of ideas and events in time). My next post looked the history of biological knowledge. Those posts, and one on the history of cosmology, appear in my work blog.

Only recently, have I come to appreciate that the typology applies to Christian theology as well. Because this is more speculative and controversial, I’ve placed it here on my personal blog.

Renaissance Theology

In the Renaissance, theology was believed to reveal the underlying patterns of the universe. Indeed, the line between the Natural Law revealed the physical world and the Divine Law revealed in scripture was a thin one. Both were ways of understanding the way the world works, like different windows into the same room.

When medieval and renaissance theologians called sacraments “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” they meant that the sacraments conferred the good gifts in which they participated. When they spoke of the Church, they meant that small fraction of the family of God visible in society. And when they spoke of Scripture, they meant the present active work of the Holy Spirit, alive in the reading and interpretation of the written words. The truth was in all things from the beginning and the things of Christianity were those things that made it most visible (Romans 1:20).

Enlightenment Theology

The Protestant Reformation (Europe c. 1500-1650) shifted our perspective on the truth. For the new theologians, dogma had to do with that order which was given by God and stood in judgment of the world. Our job was not to participate in the Logos of creation, but to comprehend God’s purpose for the world, and comprehending place ourselves in the correct camp.

When Reform (and Lutheran) theologians spoke of sacraments, they wanted to insure we understood them as making sense of grace, but not participating in it. (Luther, I think straddled this divide, but his followers completed the transition.) When they spoke of the Church, it was the category of the blessed within the taxonomy of salvation. This is one reason that purgatory was so offensive; it blurred the line between the saved and the damned. And when they thought of Scripture, it was something wholly outside the corruption of nature, God interceding through the Word.

Modern Theology

The Third Great Awakening (US c. 1850-1900) includes the rise of Pentecostalism, the Holiness movement, and the roots of what we now call Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. For this group, divine truth began to take on a historical character. (I believe this was when talk of “salvation history” became popular, but I’d love to hear from you if you know more.) Faith was characteristic of an individual, at a specific point in time, someone who had been lost and was now saved.

The Fundamentalists have no concept of sacraments in the medieval sense, believing that the symbol is fundamentally apart from the thing it points to. “Sign” has a completely different meaning. Instead, they prefer to talk about the fullness of God’s will concretely present in a particular time and place. Likewise, the Church is a concrete collection of believers, not an abstract eternal construct. Finally, Scripture takes on the burden of guaranteed truth no longer afforded to sacraments and institutions. It is a record of God acting in the world and an opportunity in time for your personal redemption.

Getting It Right

For me, this makes sense of how alien the three theologies appear to one another.

Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians lean toward medieval and Renaissance theology. For the first, truth is communal – mediated by the magisterium of the church. If you do not conform to the community, you are a heretic, literally one who thinks alone. For the latter two, truth is interactive. The liturgies and works of faith are participation in the truth. There is no way to hold it apart from acting it out.

Most Mainline Protestants (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quakers, UCC, etc.) hold to an Enlightenment theology. They are confessional because the heart of Christianity (for them) lies in holding the correct picture of the universe, in accord with God’s picture. If you do not comprehend that truth, you cannot be saved. Christian doctrine has become an intellectual exercise. Evangelism (spreading the Good News) has become apologetics (the defense of doctrine). Those who don’t get it (the belief system) don’t get it (salvation).

Fundamentalists (including most non-denominational churches) hold to a modern theology. Doctrine is important, but rather than debate the truth of the doctrine, they want to know if you’ve accepted it. Where are you in your spiritual journey? Have you been saved? No amount of action or belief can take the place of that life-changing moment.

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