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faith-and-science

 

 

 

 

 

We have seen that since its origins in the early modern period (in the seventeenth century) a distinctive “scientific” approach to the world has emerged and gone through a series of transformations. The basic scientific worldview makes a number of basic assumptions about the structure and nature of reality that have been well supported by the success the scientific method has enjoyed. Among the most important and most basic of these assumptions are:

  • The behaviour of the world we observe is uniform and predictable – what happens here and now is the same, fundamentally, as what happens in every place and at every time. Without this assumption the experimental method is impossible since new experiments would not be relevant to laws governing past events in different places.
  • The predictability of the world is of a kind expressible in mathematical laws that state that given a set of conditions the next event is calculable with exactitude – the world is mathematical in its basic structures. Again, the experimental method is impossible without this assumption since it would be unclear whether new results did or did not conform to the laws used to explain or describe past results.
  • Causation operates from the past to the future. To know what is going to happen it is necessary only to know about things that have already happened. This, too, is a necessary condition of the experimental method since if some of the causes of events were not captured in the description of a particular event then it would be impossible to know whether past descriptions or explanations had been discredited by a new result.

It is important to grasp that these basic assumptions are not obvious (they would not have been accepted by pre-modern people) and are not in principle provable, although we have good reason to accept them given the successes they have enabled. A reality in which none of them hold is imaginable and would still be compatible with what we know about the reality we actually inhabit. Indeed I would argue that they are all subject to some degree of qualification in light of the contemporary scientific story about the nature and history of our universe. (For more see part 1 of this series)

We have also seen that over the last 150 years there has been a distinct shift in the basic picture of the nature of the universe held by “science”. Before the middle of the nineteenth century a “Newtonian” view held sway. This asserted that the basic framework (space and time) and constituents (matter) of the universe were essentially fixed and unchanging. The events that occur are reducible to movements of matter through absolute (“real”) space over periods of absolute time. Time and space were the same for all matter and matter itself was not subject to change, only to movement. This enabled the thought that everything that was going to happen was in principle predictable given sufficiently detailed and accurate knowledge about the past and the present, an idea particularly associated with the eminent French mathematician, scientist and politician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).

With the development of geology and Darwinian evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century there emerged an awareness of “historical” or developmental processes in the physical structure and the biological population of the natural order. With the linked development of cosmology (the science of the Universe at the largest scale) and particle physics (the science of the smallest scale structures of reality) this awareness has been extended to the fundamental constitution of all reality. The observable universe has a beginning, now fairly accurately dated, and a history. Even the most basic particles did not exist at that beginning and the history shows the emergence of more and more complex structures, each successive level having its own sets of behaviours governed by new laws which must be deployed to describe and explain what happens.

Even space and time themselves are emergent properties of this process of development and it is now a point of debate in cosmology whether events do, in fact, flow straightforwardly in time or whether, now time is regarded as one dimension of the unified “space-time” of General Relativity, we should conceive of time as a dimension along which movement is, in principle, possible in the other direction (a theory called the “block universe”).

 

The tendency to see reality as structured into “layers” with more complex entities emerging over time and having their own law-governed behaviours not straightforwardly reducible to those of simpler levels introduces the possibility of “top-down causation” in which events describable using the categories of the lower levels cannot be fully explained without recourse to those at the higher levels. One example might be the complex chemical reactions that take place within a living organism. These can be described using only the tools of chemistry but this would not explain how they come about, since without the complex structures of the organism they would never occur, since the precursor chemicals have had to be created within the organism and brought together under the correct conditions. The extremely complex chemical structure of the DNA of a plant or animal can be described using chemical formulae but would never come into being without the long and complex chain of events that produces this particular living thing. (For more see part 2 of this series)

So what does theology have to say about all this and what difference does any of it make to theology? This has been an area given great attention by theologians over the last few decades and increasingly so over the last decade. There is a huge amount of material and a wide variety of positions. I would like to single out a few that seem particularly important and fruitful and which are common among many of those writing in the field.

 

Firstly Christian theology must always insist on the importance of purpose, goal and the future in thinking about the base structure of reality. It has been an important insight for and from the scientific approach to reality that much of what happens is explicable and much that is going to happen if predictable from the past. Many events are fully determined by their preconditions. However it is fundamental to the way Christians conceive the relationship between God and the created order that there was a purpose in God’s creation and that God is still working that purpose out. Christians can differ about the precise nature of that purpose (or purposes) and about the ways in which God works to bring it (or them) about but I would argue one cannot be a Christian and deny the meaningfulness of Creation to God or that he is striving to realise the purpose or purposes he has for it. A full explanation of reality will have a purpose-related (teleological) dimension.

 

Secondly theology will be interested in and should be open to the shift away from a fully deterministic picture of the Universe. This has two key elements. In the first place there has been the recognition and acceptance of what I referred to above as “top down causality”, that is to say the emergence of genuinely novel and irreducible causal laws when structures at higher levels of complexity emerge (which we now know to be a historical process in time). Full explanations of events become more complex (have more kinds of cause at work) as we move forward and this is not, as far as we can see, fully reducible to explanations at the lower level.

Secondly there are two forms of radical unpredictability now recognised in the structures of reality. At the level of quantum mechanics (the tiniest particles and smallest units of energy) there appears to be no way of specifying what particular events will take place. There is statistical predictability such that one can say what the probabilities of particular outcomes are over large sets of events and this good statistical predictability gives rise to regularity and predictability at the scale of objects we can interact with in our everyday lives but at the base level there is extreme and irreducible unpredictability. On the other hand at the level of the largest and most complex systems (like the planetary weather system) chaos theory has demonstrated that very small differences in the starting conditions can lead to very large differences in outcomes (the famous “butterfly flapping its wing in Brazil causing a storm in China”). In these highly complex systems radical unpredictability (at the level of detail) is caused by these chaotic effects (although again statistical methods allow a good level of prediction at the level of the system, as in weather forecasting).

 

This openness of the future and amenability of outcomes being affected “top down” by causal mechanisms acting at higher levels of organisation or structure are both welcome to theology and in part at least explain, I think, the increased interest of theologians in scientific matters more recently and the greater willingness of scientists with faith to engage actively with theological questions.

 

So theology wants to assert the importance of teleological (purpose-related) explanations and welcomes the loosening of the grip of reductionist (everything is explicable in terms of physics) and determinist (everything can in principle be predicted) ideas within the scientific world-view.

 

There is a third vital dimension to the interaction between theology and science in the contemporary world. There is, I think, a shift in the way the act of creation is thought about. 150 years ago it would have been quite natural to think of God’s creative act as something that happened in the past and is now finished with any further involvement of God with Creation as something fundamentally discontinuous with and different from it. This idea is very difficult to maintain in face of a picture of the Universe in which fundamental change has been a constant reality. Creation now tends to be thought of as an unfinished and ongoing project in which God’s final purpose requires further changes to the structures of reality (even if these are thought of as only at the highest levels of complexity).

 

All these points of intersection will be further explored as this series goes on to look at two areas of particular interest to Christian theology:first the nature of consciousness and its relation to Christian ideas about the nature of human being; and second the final destination and fate of the universe, the end of all things, how it’s all going to turn out.

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cosmic_evolution

If science is defined as a method or project based on the assumption that there are laws of nature that can be defined mathematically and discovered experimentally then what it produces is a steadily richer set of descriptions of aspects of what exists. These descriptions themselves are modified as new theories replace discredited ones but the observations that enable them are preserved and re-thought rather than abandoned. Thus our basic model of the solar system has a lot in common with that of Newton even as its theoretical underpinning has been totally transformed. We still plot orbits of the planets around the Sun even as the nature of gravity has been totally rethought and the idea of the Sun as stationary been replaced with one in which the Sun itself is part of a complex galactic system in motion both around its own centre of gravity and with respect to other galaxies.

This second part of our series on faith and science touches on two domains of contemporary scientific description, cosmology and biological evolution, and attempts to integrate them into a single “story of everything” before reflecting on the implications of this story for Christian faith.

It is now thought that everything we can observe (the Universe) had its origins in a single event 13.8 billion years ago usually called the Big Bang. At that point there was a single undifferentiated point in which all the matter-energy that now exists (remembering that matter and energy are convertible into one another by the formula {\displaystyle E=mc^{2}} where E is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light). The space into which this was compressed, which was all the space that then existed, was smaller than the smallest particle. The laws of physics that govern our reality did not yet (could not yet) apply and the forms of matter and energy with which we are familiar could not yet exist.

There was a  rapid expansion and cooling of this initial state and after something like 1 microsecond the energy levels dropped sufficiently so that elementary particles (protons, electrons and neutrons) were able to exist stably and within a few minutes the first nuclei of elements (hydrogen and helium) “condensed” out of the soup of sub-atomic particles so that the expanding universe could be thought of as a gas cloud, although this process was not completed for some hundreds of thousands of years. No more complex structures than that had yet come into being.

There followed a period of structure formation when, over very long periods, slight differences in the density of the gas cloud led to gravitational forces pulling large amounts of hydrogen and helium together into galaxies and stars. The best estimate for how long it took for the first stars to come into existence is 200 million years. Sufficient matter had by then been brought together by gravity for nuclear fusion to begin, releasing energy and creating atoms of a range of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. These heavier elements are released both during the life of a star and more especially when it comes to the end of its life and explodes as a super-nova.

The galaxy of which our Sun is part is thought to have formed 13.6 billion years ago and our Sun to have ignited within it about 4.5 billion years ago with the earth and the other planets being created as part of the same process which drew together heavy elements from the remnants of an earlier generation of stars within the galaxy.

The first appearance of life on earth is thought to have occurred between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago. There is no consensus on how the transition to self-replicating life came about. The chemical building blocks (organic chemicals) are widely dispersed throughout the universe but the processes whereby the complex processes of life appear have not been determined.

The “last common ancestor” of all current living things is thought to have been about 3.5 billion years ago and was probably a single-celled organism most similar to a modern bacterium. Photosynthesis producing oxygen evolved among the bacteria around 3 billion years ago and began to transform earth’s atmosphere. By 1.2 billion years ago sexual reproduction had emerged among the single celled organisms and by 800 million years ago multi-celled organisms had appeared.

At 500 million years ago the first evidence exists for life that could leave the water and shortly after that for vertebrate fish with true bones and then for land-based plants. Before 350 million years ago the earth began to resemble its current state, with plants and animals including insects on the land. At around 250 million years ago a major extinction event wiped out around 90% of then existing species. A second major extinction event before 200 million years ago allowed the rise of the dinosaurs.

At 66 million years ago another large extinction took place that wiped out most of the dinosaurs and made space for the rise of the mammals, birds (and ants!). At 35 million years ago another big change includes diversification of grasses and of mammals with many modern types appearing.

Somewhere between 65 and 55 million years ago the hominims, which include the chimpanzee, modern humans and the totally extinct Australopithecenes first emerged.  The last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees (our nearest living relatives) is thought to have been 4 to 8 million years ago. The first emergence of the genus Homo sapiens is dated to about 2 million years ago with biologically modern human beings (people genetically identical to us) appearing in Africa about 250,000 years ago. The migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa is thought to have happened 50,000 years ago and the last other human species (Neanderthal) to have become extinct 30,000 years ago.

A distinction is made between biologically modern humans and behaviourally modern humans. Behavioural modernity is a way of life recognisably continuous with all modern humans. This is a controversial and much debated distinction but behavioural modernity is generally thought to include; abstract thought,  planning, trade, cooperative labor, body decoration, control and use of fire. Along with these traits, humans possess a heavy reliance on social learning. Archeological markers of these traits are accepted as; burial of the dead, fishing, figurative art, use of pigments for self-decoration, use of bones for tools, transport of resources over long distances, blade technology, diversity, standardization, and regionally distinct artifacts, hearths, and complex tools.

Whether behavioural modernity emerged suddenly, about 50,000 years ago, or gradually culminating at that time is a matter of debate. In either case it was not present at the first evolution of biologically modern human beings and was present at around the time of the migration out of Africa. It is also generally agreed that some kind of religion was present no later than 30,000 years ago with some scholars claiming to have identified evidence of religious practices even before the evolution of Homo sapiens.

The next major event in this story is the so-called Neolithic Revolution of around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. At that time human beings began the transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life that involved them getting their food from the existing environment to an agricultural way of life where they controlled and tended their sources of food (primarily wheat and domesticated animals). These first agricultural societies began a process of cultural evolution that brings us to the current day.

Over the next four sessions we will explore the implications of this picture for theology.

  • We will consider what it means for our ideas about a creator God and his relationship to Creation when we recognise that Creation is not and has never been stable. Right down to the most basic physical constitution of the Universe we see processes of change and development within time that still continue.
  • We will think about the nature of human beings and the relationship between the modern scientific view of them and the special place they occupy in Christian theology as the “image of God”. This will involve thinking about modern neuroscience and the puzzle of consciousness.
  • We will think about ideas about the ultimate destination and purpose of the Universe/Creation in light both of scientific projections and of our tradition of thinking about the End

einstein

I’ve been doing some thinking about science and religion recently. There are a number of reasons for this. The immediate cause was a request from the weekly Bible study group at one of my churches to run a short series exploring issues of faith and science. These issues have arisen repeatedly during other series of discussions and we felt it was time to approach them more directly and thoroughly.

This was opportune because I’ve reading quite a bit of the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg who has some very interesting things to say on this question (my reading of Pannenberg was in turn prompted by writing a review for the journal Theology in Scotland of a work on ecclesiology heavily influenced by him which made him sound indispensable, which I have come to think he is).

Finally, my initial intellectual formation was heavily scientific (I studied scientific disciplines exclusively between the ages of 16 and 20) and followed by immersion in a philosophical tradition (Hegelianism) that aimed at an integration of all knowledge into a seamless unity, rejecting any attempt to rigidly separate domains, for example, of facts and values. For this reason the apparent difficulties of integrating scientific and theological ideas has been a source of embarrassment to me since my conversion, in my 30s, to Christianity.

It has been a delight, therefore, to find what a lot of really interesting work has been going on in this area over recent years. Not all of it is entirely to my taste but I have found a great deal to like. I have been particularly drawn to the work of Nancey Murphy who is both an ordained Christian minister and someone who identifies primarily as a philosopher although she is also a theologian. Murphy’s work can be seen, in some respects, as a reconstruction of some of Pannenberg’s insights about the relationship of science and theology on the basis of more recent philosophy of science than Pannenberg takes as his starting point.

The developing relationship between science and philosophy of science on the one hand and theology on the other has been enabled by new thinking on both sides of this pairing. The ways in which scientific theory understands its object (let’s call it the Universe) on the one hand and the way in which those who try to make sense of the scientific enterprise itself (philosophers of science) understand what science is and how it works have both been undergoing rapid and radical change in the last decades.

At the same time there has been a profound shift in some parts of the theological world towards a new interest in what one might call “natural theology”. For a long time theologians had a tendency not to want to engage too much with science and in the work of the Reformed thinker Karl Barth (whom almost everyone – including at least one Pope – acknowledges to be the most influential and important theologian of the twentieth century) this was made a point of principle. More recently a wave of post-Barthian thinkers, of whom I rate Pannenberg highest, have rejected this rejection of integrating Christianity and the scientific enterprise.

There is a huge amount to say about all of this, and I will be tying to say some of it in my Bible Study sessions and here, but there are a few key general points I would like to make at the outset.

  1. It is increasingly widely recognised that there is nothing inevitable about the scientific method. It was an innovation of the early modern period but, like all innovations, it required certain things already to be in place. Among these preconditions, many historians would now argue, were a set of theological ideas about the orderliness of creation and in particular the existence of universal laws of nature. This basic foundational idea of the scientific enterprise can (and should) be seen as a theological idea. (One of the main theological interpreters and advocates of this idea is Alister McGrath, who holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford – see here for a relevant extract from his book Scientific Theology)
  2. The picture of the Universe that has emerged from the cosmology centred on the idea of the “Big Bang” has led us to a generalisation of the idea of evolution from the field of biology to the whole of science. The Universe is seen as having had an origin and to have undergone very fundamental change since that origin. The possibility that it has a terminus, that our Universe will not always exist is also a genuinely open question in contemporary scientific theory. Elementary particles, chemical elements, planets, stars and everything else we observe are now seen to have emerged from processes within the history of the Universe. This dynamic view of physical reality connects with developments in theology.
  3. For a variety of reasons there is much more interest in theology than there was before the twentieth century in the Biblical view of God’s relationship with Creation being historical and oriented towards bringing about new states of that Creation. The idea that we should think of God as working to redeem Creation, common in both the Old and New Testaments but somewhat foreign to the Christianity of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, became more influential in the twentieth and is on the way to being the consensus view of the twenty-first.

There are then three basic intellectual trends towards: 1) recognising that science needs to presuppose ideas we would recognise as within the domain of theological (although not necessarily demanding any particular wider theological framework); 2) understanding the profundity of the shift in our vision of the nature of reality implied by contemporary scientific theory and; 3) seeing how deeply our conception of God’s basic relationship to Creation is being remade.

These three together provide a moment of tremendous opportunity and many theologians are working to grasp it. Besides those I have already mentioned notable other include John Polkinghorne, theologian and Cambridge professor of mathematical physics, Sarah Coakley, Cambridge Professor of Divinity and former co-Director of the “Evolution and Theology of Cooperation” research programme at Harvard, and Keith Ward, former Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

One preliminary conclusion I have personally come to is that the task for theology is to re-integrate science into itself. The question of the relationship between science and theology should be recast not about their compatibility but about the best way of absorbing science completely into theology. We ought to be setting ourselves the challenge of making theology once again the “queen of sciences”, not by challenging or denying the scientific method but by demonstrating that it is a fundamentally theological enterprise, making the necessary adjustments to our theological frameworks to allow this fully to be true, in ways pioneered by the work of Pannenberg who showed that it is possibly to do this while in no way abandoning the determination to remain “orthodox” in one’s trinitarian Christianity, who indeed showed that it is precisely such a faith that can explore and vindicate the theological bases of scientific thinking.

At our Bible study meeting at Potters Bar this week we discussed the question “Why do we read the Bible (if we do)?” It was fascinating. There were such a range of responses and they were shared with both confidence and respect.

Today I’ve participated in a Facebook thread that touched on the strong aversion some Christians and some ministers have to the doctrine know as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) to which others have an equally strong attachment. My own view is that while I don’t find this view to be well supported in Scripture I do acknowledge that it has been central to the churches of the Reformation and that the passages held to support it can be interpreted in this way.

This view is that humanity is due punishment for our sins. This punishment has been endured on our behalf by Jesus. This is what enables God to overlook and forgive our sins and regard us as “justified” and hence not liable to further punishment (in hell).

It should be stressed that this view, while not hugely popular in contemporary mainstream liberal churches is deeply rooted in our common Protestant tradition, as any acquaintance with our hymnaries will demonstrate. It is also predominant in “evangelical” Christianity today, as acquaintance with both the writings and especially the music of this (broad) strand of Church life quickly shows.

Personally I think PSA fails, on the whole, to grasp adequately the Jewish background of the New Testament. Christ’s action on the cross (as I read the Biblical texts) is mostly understood against the background of the sacrificial system, which dealt with sin primarily under the rubric of holiness and purity rather than that of morality and punishment. The sacrificial system was about purification rather than about retribution (which is why the sacrifice of animals which could not sin makes any sense at all).

What is at stake is the relationships between life and death (with blood the bearer of life) and between holiness and impurity (with blood the cleansing agent as the bearer of God-given life). The point here is that there is no sense in which the animal being sacrificed is being punished. Similarly  I find nothing in the New Testament that conclusively says that Jesus is being punished or is bearing a punishment. To read this into the texts seems to me unwarranted, given what we know about the OT and Judaic understanding of sacrifice.

So I am unconvinced by PSA but I also know that it has a long and illustrious history in the tradition. It is not, I think, fully supported by Scripture (the highest authority) but is very well supported by our tradition, with that tradition resting itself on interpretations of the Biblical writings that, while I’m not convinced by them, I can’t show definitively to be wrong.

These ideas thus have to be accepted, I think, as “orthodox” even while I regard them as unproven and open to question. What do I do about that?

This answer to this question will depend on one’s attitude to Biblical authority (does the interpretation of the passages ultimately decide anything?), to tradition (does what Luther, Calvin and the subsequent consensus of the churches they founded taught have any weight in deciding what I should think?) and one’s own thoughts and feelings (if they disagree with the Bible or with orthodox teaching which should I accept?)

My own view is

1) it is wrong to counterpose too starkly Bible and tradition – our interpretations will always be shaped by our Christian formation and the Bible itself is an authoritative of a tradition that is guided and shaped by the revelation of God

2) only the Church catholic can declare a view heretical (i.e. there can be no new heresies after, at the latest, the council of Chalcedon – in this I depart from the mainstream of the Reformed tradition which is wary of acknowledging the authority of even the first five councils). Thus even a view I can’t see the value or truth of should be accepted as having something to say if it isn’t, on this definition, heretical

3) one’s own views should and must be taken seriously, if we have any attachment to the idea that the Spirit is both at work and essential. However where this conflicts with the Bible and with tradition either by leading to outright rejection of an orthodox position or to the espousal of heretical positions one should be suspicious of oneself and strive to find a way to align to orthodoxy.

To some extent all the characters who populate the story we tell ourselves about our lives are creations of our own imagination. Our heads are full of fictional and semi-fictional plot lines, archetypes, stereotypes and patterns. We learn some, are probably born “knowing” others. The figure of “parent” (or perhaps “mother”) must surely be innate. Like baby birds but slightly less obviously baby humans must have the capacity to attach to an adult who will care for them.

 

As our children grow they form friendships that look to me like they come out of something very intrinsic to their nature. The figure of the “friend” is imprinted within each of us and those we meet who become our friends are, to some extent, fitted to this form. Similarly “lover”, “rival”, “boss”, “subordinate” and so look, to me like roles we are made to recognise and fill.

 

Carl Jung, the psycho-analytic thinker, created a complex and specultive theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious that personally I have never felt inclined to explore in any depth but I’m sure he was on to something. Our perceptions of other people are neither purely observational nor arbitrary. They are based on a set of pre-existing categories to which we adjust what we experience of those we encounter.

 

Our ideas about people we know well will, in some cases, begin to escape the internal limitations of the ready-made types we have put them in, but not always. Perhaps in some cases the strength of our feelings about those closest to us will be derived from the importance to us of the role they are being called on the play and this prevents us from really seeing the reality of the person concerned. The saying “love is blind” points towards this possibility. The very best relationships must be those where those involved are suitable to their parts and so can be seen as they are while staying, as it were, “in character”.

 

So what about God? It makes sense to me to think that our idea of God begins like those more or less arbitrary putting of an available person into a role demanded by our internal constitution, those friendships formed at new schools or in the first year of university that depend only on chance and need and which fall away as more compatible people are met. We hear about “God” and form from what’s available to us a character that meets our needs. This is a fictional character called “God” and for many opponents of religion this is all that God can ever be.

 

Those friendships of new situations either develop into something more substantial, where the people involved actually have things in common and interest and concern for one another, or they fall away to be replaced by different, more real, relationships. What about our relationship with the “God” we create out of our need? Can it develop into something else or must it be replaced? Perhaps science, psychology, humanistic ethics or rational social science are the new friends we make in our second year?

 

These considerations are a significant reason why I think the rooting of our faith in its deep history and especially in the Bible are so indispensable to Christianity. If the word “God” is to be anything other than a label for a projection of our desires then it has to be tested in the encounter with something beyond ourselves, with the reality of the person (this is Christianity after all) it is being used to name. This encounter takes place, can only take place, through time, in events, in history and in culture.

 

If we allow our idea of God to break free of the concrete life of the human race then it will become mere wish-fulfilment, however much we dress it up in the languages of rationality, ethics, aesthetics or anything else you may name.

 

It has always been clear that God, as the transcendent ground of reality (the creator of all things) and the sovereign legislator of all goodness (the giver of the Law) can’t be encountered in exactly the same way as we meet one another. God is not a “person” in the same way as we are. But the history and experience of our species is that we have to encounter God in a way analagous to that I which we meet one another. This is the special gift (revelation) of Christianity. We meet God through and in Jesus who is not a hybrid God-man but somehow (mysteriously and paradoxically) holds Godhood (divinity) and manhood (humanity) in a single person.

 

This, too, is an event in history and our idea of who and what God is has to be adjusted to it. We have to let our pre-formed ideas of God, shaped by our need, to change to allow God to be who God is. That’s hard, as it is to remain in love with someone who doesn’t simply conform to the “lover” we have imagined. But it’s what we have to do if we’re going to have a real and lasting relationship.

 In one of my churches we’re running a Bible Study group that is looking at some of the New Testament with a view specifically to getting a sense of the nature of the earliest Church, what its life was like and how it grew. We’er beginning with Paul’s letters (Philemon first and now 1 Corinthians) and will probably move on to Acts.

The first thing that is striking us is how different the understanding of what the Church is that we’re encountering from many of our contemporary assumptions. In our discussion something that came out especially strongly was Paul’s strong sense that Christians should treat one another differently from the way they treat outsiders.

It is clear that the Christian community regarded itself as separated from the world, a people apart with special obligations to one another. Family language is prominent (in Philemon there is a bewildering interplay of the language of parenthood (Paul as father) and fraternity (Paul as brother). Christians bond in Christ makes them foreign to the pagan society in which they live.

This sits somewhat uneasily with the universalist ethic that is generally understood as applying today (even before we get into debates about universalism in regard to salvation), The suggestion that our moral obligations to non-Christians are less than those to our fellow believers sounds peculiar and even offensive to the contemporary ear but is inescapably there in the New Testament texts.

Similarly there is an oddness about attitudes to authority in Paul when viewed from the present. He habitually claims the right to speak and to decide because of who and what he is. “I am Paul, the apostle” he writes. His direct encounter with the risen Christ confers a special status on him. Others are obliged to listen when he speaks. This kind of claim is not entirely foreign to the present day, at least in the charismatic churches, but to most of us in the URC it seems strange.

All this was brought home to me again when I tried to read 1 Corinthians in The Message, which by rendering it into contemporary idiomatic speech (albeit a North American variant of this which grated on my inner ear) made me realise how strong a sense I had of the huge cultural and historical distance between our world and that of Paul.

So what should we (Christians) do about all this? The Church we discern in the New Testament is a very different entity set in a very different context. The urban world of the Hellenistic cities in the early Roman Empire is not very like that of 21st century Britain. The small and more or less independent new house churches of the Pauline mission are not very like many of the congregations of the United Reformed Church. So how should we relate ourselves to Paul’s writings, quite singularly concerned with the life and witness of these long ago communities?

I think I’ve encountered a range of (actual) answers to this question, lived out rather than stated in the churches I’ve been involved with:

  • most often I’ve seen the question effectively ignored – where Paul’s letters are read and preached on at all it is as theological rather than practical texts – the difference between his Church and ours is rendered unproblematic by being sidestepped completely
  • I am also aware of, although I have little personal experience of, the approach that takes the Pauline Church as a timeless model and seeks to create a contemporary Church that would be recognisable to the original recipients of 1 Corinthians
  • some seek to re-interpret the early Church to extract from its life a timeless essence of which the particular forms are a culturally specific expression – I’m thinking of Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan’s anti-Imperialist Paul which sees in Paul’s apocalyptic separatism a rejection of earthly power that legitimates an anti-establishment radical Christian politics in the present (I think Stanley Hauerwas is doing something similar)
  • others again set Jesus against Paul and denounce Paul’s attitudes to a whole range of things (effectively de-canonising the Pauline epistles)

I’m not terribly happy with any of these approaches. When I said at my ordination service that I believe the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of all God’s people I meant what I said. What this affirmation does not express though is how that authority makes itself felt, how it works itself out,

It means that de-canonising the epistles is simply not an option for me. Neither, though, does it make any sense to me to pluck these documents from their context and imagine that the Church, after 2000 years of its own development and that of the society within which it is set could return to the forms it then had.

Uncomfortably this might seem to put me closest to Borg and his friends but  I actually think they’re as much guilty of de-historicising the text as their apparent polar opposites in the conservative camp who would attempt, for example, to put women back into a subordinate position in the Church.

What I think we really need to do is build the historical bridge that would link us properly to the New Testament texts and the New Testament Church by understanding how it became us. We need to see ourselves properly as part of the same Church as Paul and Philemon, with the same status as the latter and the same strange and ambiguous relationship to the former, as both sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. Paul’s authority over us is the same, really, as his authority over Philemon and, like that authority, rests on our being one body in Christ.

The debate about the URC’s attitude to civil partnerships rumbles on. I observe its expression in the social media but I’m sure it’s more active and probably less temperate in other (“real world”) contexts. I’ve had a go at articulating my own position (most recently here) but I’m more interested today in looking at some assumptions being made and arguments being put by others. In the past I’ve most often posted about my differences from the advocates of “gay marriage” (e.g. here). Now though I want to examine the problems I perceive in the lines of argument developed by those who believe we are instructed by the Bible to abhor same-sex relationships and conduct.

The main line they develop (as I understand it) says:

  • the Bible is the revealed word of God
  • this implies that where there are clear instructions they apply to us
  • there are clear instructions regarding same-sex behaviours
  • therefore we are instructed to abhor and forbid these behaviours and not to tolerate or approve them

To be clear I am preparing soon to take the ordination vows specified by the URC’s Basis of Union. I believe that I can do so in good conscience. This means that I accept (wholeheartedly) the proposition that I “believe that the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of God’s people”. I really do accept that: the Biblical texts are our supreme authority. What I’m interested in here is how that authority makes itself felt.

This means that I (almost) accept the first of the four propositions above. The Bible certainly reveals the Word of God to us in a way unique and supremely authoritative and this is not my focus in this post.

Where I start to dissent from the line of argument summarise above is with its second point. I am absolutely convinced that there is no-one involved in this debate who actually believes this point as it is stated. Take Jesus’ instruction to the rich young man in Mark 10.21: “sell all that you have and give to the poor”. Jesus does not qualify this instruction or give conditions under which it applies. Does it therefore apply to us?

It is relatively easy (and quite correct) to deflect this point by pointing out that it is given to a particular individual and therefore can be taken to apply only to him. This seems sensible to me. But what we have here is an argument (stated or unstated) that a clear instruction from Jesus himself can be ignored by most of us in terms of actual conduct. We interpret it by working out some more general underlying tendency.

Another notorious example is the letter to Philemon in which Paul sends a slave back to his master and the 1 Cor 7 where Paul seems to instruct slaves to remain in slavery. Here we seem to have explicit support for this institution, or at least an acceptance of it by Paul. Does this apply to any unfortunate person today who finds themselves enslaved? I suspect we would say not, invoking differences in the nature of the institution and the surrounding social context.

Or what about the other admonitions in 1 Cor 7 regarding marriage. In verses 26 and 27 Paul advises those not married to remain unmarried “in view of the impending (or current) crisis”. Do we take this to mean that we should attempt to dissuade any who come to us to discuss getting married? I don’t think many of our ministers would take this line (although I might suspect they should that’s another story).

My point is that even in the gospels and epistles we apply some discernment to our decisions about which clear instructions are directly binding and which need work to apply to our lives. In the examples I’ve cited I don’t think we would differ much (except in the last case where I’m aware my view is not widely shared).

So there must be something special about the instructions on same-sex behaviour that marks them out from those that we feel we can see as not applying directly to us. I’ve yet to see or hear a very clear and explicit statement of what this feature is but I think I have heard enough to have a go at setting it out. I’d be more than delighted to have this clarified by anyone who wants to.

Critical to this is the relation of the new covenant to the old, especially as regards law. Binding rules about how to behave are a prominent feature of the old covenant(s). The OT rules on sexual behaviour (which are, I think, the basis for Paul’s attitudes to homosexuality) form part of this divinely given law. When Jesus frees us from the law he does not put an end to all aspects of these rules. In particular a distinction is made between “cultic” and “moral” rules.

What is put an end to are those things which form the boundary between the chosen people and the rest of humanity (e.g. circumcision and the dietary rules) and anything relating to sacrifice (which is fulfilled and completed on the cross). The rest, “ethical” rules, remain in force. Stealing, murder, injustice and sexual immorality remain forbidden. It is this that Paul is showing us when he writes the passages in question.

Clearly there is something in this. “Antinomian” rejections of any limit to acceptable conduct is not a position that attracts a lot of support in the URC as far as I know. I think that some of those upset by our GA decision suspect the denomination of embracing slow-motion antinomianism, which will eventually lead to complete license. I think they’re wrong. If anything my complaint would be the opposite, but again that’s another story.

However I would suggest that this division of cultic and ethical admonitions is itself a matter of judgement and that Paul himself affirms this for us. A passage that means an enormous amount to me is 1 Cor 8-9. Paul is clear that ethical and cultic behaviour cannot clearly be distinguished and that the key thing is to do nothing that prevents others coming to Christ. We need to see that this is Paul’s own practice. His letters are tools for obeying Christ’s call to him to be the apostle to the gentiles.

We can disagree about the matter at hand but all involved should be submitting themselves to the rule of love in respect the their fellow Christians and remembering both that they are making judgements about the texts and that those who disagree with them are also, as they see it, discerning in the Spirit.