At Liverpool Hope University: a Theological Dichotomy

Yesterday was ‘Foundation Hour’ at Liverpool Hope University.  The Dean had invited me to talk on Faith and Wisdom in Science at this remarkable regular event for the institution.  Everything stops for Foundation Hour – no classes, no meetings.  Not that everyone actually comes… but almost everyone could come for a reflection based on Hope’s core values of faith, reconciliation and learning.LiverpoolHope LivHopeCrest

I cant bring to mind another foundation that embodies quite so explicitly the holding together of differences in a determined resolve to reconcile.  A double foundation of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, Liverpool Hope also derives its name from the street that rund between the two corresponding Cathedrals: Hope Street.

So a presentation on the theme of a long theological story for sciece that begins with the springs of Old Testament Wisdom literature and gathers momentum through the Biblical narratives of reconciliation found, unuorprisingly but delightfully, a welcoming landscape of prepared minds to flow along.  One question struck me as especially perspicacious, however, and also emblematic of a community that lives and breathes a scholarly life between two poles (to paraphrase by memory):

“To which of the two opposing traditions of Christian theology does your ‘theology of science’ belong – the more positive theology of mankind as mandated caretakers of creation, or the darker theological anthropology of fallen humankind in need of redemption?”

I thought this a wonderful question.  We, like Liverpool Hope, live between two poles all the time; between George Steiner’s REal PresencesFriday of despair and Sunday of Resurrection (his famous Easter metaphor in Real Presences), between the need of repentance and the need to celebrate, between the cognisance of our fallen nature and the knowledge that we are loved and healed.  So which route does a participatory and reconciliatory theology of science take us?

Well, like authentic Christian discipleship in any area, we need to hold both together.  The history of science teaches us that.  At the dawn of the modern era we have Kepler rejoicing in the calling to ‘think God’s thoughts after him’.  Such sentiment springs from the creation/ made in imagio Dei narrative, generating a strong and divinely-ordained mandate for humans to engage with creation while enjoying a perspective that becomes increasingly aligned to that of the Creator.  In contrast, Francis Bacon in Organum saw the Fall as reducing humankind’s knowledge of the creation to a pale shadow compared to the insight and wisdom once possessed by Adam.  For Bacon, the senses and the empiricle data that they allow us access to open a doorway back to a redeemed knowledge of creation, but only by grace and sheer hard labour!  Bacon writes very much in the ‘fall/redemtion’ mode as his primary narrative.  Holding both the status of being created in the image of God and standing in need of redemption and healing is the task of the scientist-theologian.

But more is true – as all authentic theology this too needs to emerge from and be rooted in expereince if it is to mean anything and if to advise, shope, transform practice.  Scientists, whether believing or not, will witness to first hand experience of these two parallel and tensioned narrative experiences.  So much of what we do feels like hard work to achieve very little.  I have just returned to my desk from a visit to the lab where is became clear that a long and arduous set of experiments has been beset by a strange problem that we have never seen before.  It will all need to be done again, but we have no guarantee that the experimental issue will not recur.  ‘By the sweat of your brow’.  But we also know those occasional moments of sheer gift when ideas just come, when an inpenetrable fog of puzzle clears, and we see how things are.  Science embodies both labour and grace.

Grounding a supporting narrative for science in the Old Testament wisdom tradition is helpful because it holds the two ways of living together in mutual support.  Wisdom is both a practical guide to working out a life lived ethically and well, and the personified creative force that in Proverbs 8 shapes the mountains with delight, and in Job 28 takes humans up in the divine ability to see the deep structures of the universe.

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2 thoughts on “At Liverpool Hope University: a Theological Dichotomy

  1. Dear tb:
    The “wonderful question” which you were given at Liverpool Hope received a wonderful answer from you. It outlines the confrontational and polar mindset which freights our society [and perhaps our world] today. Indeed this polarity of thought is itself the great blinding problem.
    You did however move on to the place where we should be, that is the inclusive inquiry of not only either/or, but both/and. A step further is even more scientific, and that is the completely open admixture of either/or/both/and.
    This very problem was marvelously addressed in Richard Hooker’s “Ecclesiastical Polity”. Wherein he led the way for Anglicanism into a “Middle Way.” Remembering his time, Anglicanism was centrist between the various “witch-burners” of protestantism/puritanism, and Roman catholicism with its auto da fe; Indeed, Francis Bacon cites Hooker many times. Re-reading Bacon after reading ;Hooker gave to me a kinder, gentler view of his world-view as it includes man’s relationship to his creator than the one which you seem to be putting forward.
    I am in no way offering criticism, but I feel that a careful study of the philosophers of the time is a far better way. Much of the current philosophy being “sold” today is a re-packaging of the ideas of Universalism, Unitarianism, and yes, leading back into Arrian heresy. Thereby into a rather sterile “Process Theology” which I have seen back in the 1950s. The 1800s had Transcendentalism, the 1930’s had Alfred North Whitehead. I see scholasticism in today’s USA leading to a humanism of logical-ethical practice which is ultimately hopeless, and faithless. I call it yet another Pierian Spring.

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  2. A fascinating discussion on the human condition.
    A biological thought – The fall of Adam myth, where ‘Adam’ perhaps represents all humans, does not appear to have any reality in our current understanding of our direct descent from ape-like ancestors. Were there ever humans endowed with such wisdom and insight as Bacon supposed? The myth is best explained as an ancient understanding of humanity’s relationship to the rest of the world and God, now superseded. People struggled to interpret the problems of suffering and assumed it was punishment for wrong doing, requiring suitable sacrifice by the sinner. (see Job, where God appears to disagree with this interpretation by Job’s friends).
    Today we consider all living things have their own specialities fitting them for their niche. Humans are selfconscious and have good memories and speech, and these contribute to our great success as a species. Nothing indicates we have fallen from a superior state.
    The difficulties we face, along with all living things, are part of the creative process. Evolution occurs by the interaction of genetic and environmental changes reacting with the regularities of the physical universe. Pain is not punishment but the result of our having a nervous system that records both pain and pleasure. The ability to feel is an evolutionary advantage for many animals as we have to move around to access energy-giving foods, unlike plants, fungi etc.
    Perhaps we are in need of love and wisdom rather than redemption?

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