I noted today’s Daily Episcopalian shortly after perusing the great comments on Third Millennium Catholic’s call for a new Lux Mundi. What struck me (and makes in appearance in the comment I left at the Cafe) is that this Anglican conflict of ours is so often presented by the talking heads as an either/or: either Liberal Christianity or conservative Reformed evangelicalism. But there are so many more options out there.
The main problem with the present options is what Third Mill Catholic brings up in the comments: There is not to my knowledge a sound version of orthodox theology that adequately and systemically engages current science. Most Liberal Protestantism deals with it by retreating from it; most conservative evangelicalism deals with it by ignoring it. And yet—nature, creation, incarnate reality are bound up with the heart of the Christian proclamation.
I don’t know the answer, but in thinking through the options—and in the interest of presenting options, I thought I’d resurrect an old post from three years ago that addresses some of these issues:
So, in an
earlier post I discussed some of the historical and exegetical issues
surrounding the formation of the creeds. However, stating the origins
of a thing and discussing its current applications are two different
things. To summarize briefly, the creeds were developed to serve as a
meta-narrative that located the key parts of the Faith by securing a
literal meaning to select portions of biblical narrative, specifically
parts in question by heretical groups. Fast-forward 2,000 years and
here we are today… [One quick procedural point: When I think of the
creeds my first thought is of the Apostles’ Creed rather than the
Nicene. Thus, it’s the one I work off of instinctively.]
The creeds were formed in a different age with radically different
philosophical conceptions and scientific notions. They are based in a
foreign way of understanding literary documents and of conceptualizing
religious communities. They functioned in certain ways then, how do we
use them now? Have these categories changed too much for them to be
Intellectually, the biggest problem that I can see with using the
creeds in the modern church is a disconnect in worldviews, especially
the understanding of the physical world. The modern American worldview
is heavily conditioned by Western science and preeminently Newtonian
physics. (As cool as quantum physics may be, it hasn’t penetrated to
the daily assumptions of normal people yet and probably never will.)
The two most important point of this belief system in relation to the
creeds are these: 1) scientific theories are verified by observation of
reproducible data and 2) reliable science is predictive, which follows
logically from 1. That is to say, if I throw a quarter up in the air
one hundred times, I can be confident that it will come back down.
Furthermore, if I have a steady hand and a good eye, I can consistently
throw it in such a way that I can more or less describe its arc by
means of a mathematical equation. These assumptions form the bedrock of
our understanding of reality.
What does this have to do with the creeds? Just this: the majority
of the beliefs in the creed, especially those concerning the first two
persons of the Trinity, deal specifically with completely
non-reproducible, unpredictable events many of which contradict what we
know from our quotidian experience of reproducible data. Once again,
that’s to say, I know how babies are made and I know how dead bodies
act. The creeds fly in the face of that knowledge. Or, to push a
different edge, I don’t know how the world was created and will never
have the opportunity to observe the whole process again. And I don’t
know scientifically what it means to have a God-Man and how his body
would or would not share the same biochemical structures as the rest of
us. In other words, these events are not repeatable and we have no data
to prove or disprove the creedal statements except by analogy to
repeatable phenomena. We cannot directly access either the moment or
acts of creation or the resurrection. At least with creation we can
study what remains but even that can not answer questions of causes—it
will only demonstrate mechanisms.
The problem, then, is a conflict of worldviews. A literal
understanding of the creeds as they were originally intended to be
understood is in conflict with a modern scientific worldview. Now we
must ask what to do with this conflict.
In order to resolve the conflict and to achieve consistency of
thought, one worldview must win and supplant the other. Thus on one
hand we have those who pick the biblical/creedal worldview over the
scientific worldview. Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, a
general suspicion that physical scientists are part of an atheistic
conspiracy against God and the Family seem to be the fruits of this
side. On the other hand are those who pick the scientific worldview
over the biblical/creedal worldview. And yes, this view has a long and
distinguished history in Western intellectual circles from the Deists
on forward to the likes of Bishop Spong and clergy who say the creeds
but confess to believing very little of them or taking them only in an
allegorical sense. Many if not most of the people in the seminaries
that I have attended or been around have been quite congenial to this
second view. But are these really our only options?
One of my favorite conceits in the Science Fiction movies of yore
was the preferred manner for the unarmed Space Hero to destroy the
Killer Robot hard on his heels. It’s easy enough to do—just yell out
some sort of conundrum (what rhymes with “orange”?)—and the Killer
Robot would lurch to a halt, smoke pouring out of convenient orifices.
Ever seen anyone try that when being pursued with a guy with a gun?
Didn’t think so. He might think about it for a second, shrug, and start
My point is this: human beings live in a messy, contingent,
incarnational world. Things are always more complicated than they seem.
Humans are fully capable of working simultaneously within multiple and
conflicting worldviews. This came home to me most strongly when I first
read Bultmann’s classic Jesus Christ and Mythology as an undergrad; the same thought is expressed in his essay from this book. He writes:
Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced
to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer
possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the
world-in fact, there is no one who does. What meaning, for instance,
can we attach to such phrases in the creed as “descended into hell” or
“ascended into heaven”? We no longer believe in the three-storied
universe which the creeds take for granted. The only honest way of
reciting the creeds is to strip the mythological framework from the
truth they enshrine-that is, assuming that they contain any truth at
all, which is just the question that theology has to ask. No one who is
old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local
heaven. There is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense of the
word. The same applies to hell in the sense of a mythical underworld
beneath our feet. And if this is so, the story of Christ’s descent into
hell and of his Ascension into heaven is done with. We can no longer
look for the return of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven or hope
that the faithful will meet him in the air (I Thess. 4:15ff.). …
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless
and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and
at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and
My response on first reading the last line was to say…but we do. We
do and can believe in contradictory things at the same time. Smoke
doesn’t belch from anywhere—we may get confused in extreme cases of
overlap, but we can live quite comfortably using insights from a
pre-scientific Christian world view to those from a contradictory
Newtonian physics perspective mingled with those from a contradictory
quantum physics perspective to those of a Platonic universe.
Specifically speaking as an American Pragmatist, I go with the
worldview that works. When I’m in “installing computer components”
mode, I’m all Newtonian physics. When I’m in “playing cards” mode, I’m
all about quantum physics and probability mechanics [which with my
pop-scientific knowledge may explain why I don’t play cards for money
;-D]. When I wonder about my salvation, I go pre-scientific all the
How does this make me neither schizophrenic nor intellectually
inconsistent? Because I’m not hegemonic about any of my worldviews. I
think that they are all models that serve to describe certain
aspects of reality from certain perspectives. If I was wondering where
a quarter would go if I threw it with a certain velocity at a certain
trajectory, I feel confident that Newtonian physics could describe the
arc for me and, furthermore, that chaos theory could give me the
probability that the Newtonian equation would prove incorrect. These
equations are not reality, though; they map it and offer a way to
understand it especially when I approach it with certain questions. I
don’t think that any of these worldviews offer all of the answers to
any apprehension of reality and that gives me the freedom to switch
between them when I need to.
So—where does that get me with the creeds? I believe the creeds
literally. Scientifically, I can’t tell you how they work. I have no
idea how to model the Ascension mathematically—which is the part that
ties my logical brain into the worst knot. It also doesn’t bother me
that much. As the only humanities guy in a family of hard scientists I
take the sciences seriously. I also know their down-side when they are
taken as a philosophical system; they offer only an empirical
materialism of cause and effect. It’s the epicureans redivivus.
I find them lacking in power. And maybe power is the point. In living
between worldviews I have found a certain amount of power in a
scientific worldview, the kind of power that confirms its truth. I can
calculate events and have the events turn out a certain way. I have
found the beauty of equations replicated in microscopic corners of the
world. But the same is also true of the religious, pre-scientific
worldview; I have experienced the power of the resurrection in my life,
of the communion of the saints, and God as creator in ways that verify
their truth. While the scientific worldview has power in its realm it
cannot touch the spiritual side of my life the way that the creedal
truths do. (And the same holds true the other way–science offers far
more compelling arguments in the realm of things material.)
As a result when in the field of personal belief I experience a
conflict between the creedal worldview and the scientific worldview, I
go with the creeds. I cannot explain them scientifically, I cannot
explain the mechanics of the Trinity but I believe it and I believe
that it matters for how I live and move in the world. One of the
reasons that I allow the creeds to trump science too is because of
hope. I hope that there is more to life and existence than empirical
materialism. Faith in the creeds allows a belief in the mundus plenior,
a world where reality cannot be bounded only by what can be weighed and
measured. There are wonders in the world that our science does not
explain. Maybe some day it will but even if it does it will not
diminish my belief in something beyond the purely physical.
In short, I’m proposing an active cognitive dissonance. Not an
unthinking one that does not recognize the conflict between worldviews,
but one that both notes it and appreciates that all of our worldviews
are reductionistic models of a reality that we can never completely
quantify or wrap our heads around. Call it a creative contradiction.
So, what do you think? Does it work?
Yes. And Anglicans often lead the way in making up new options from John Donne to Joseph Butler to Alister McGrath. And yet somehow no one seems to care.
In my opinion Anglican theologians are at their best when they’re writing poetry—and thus Done, Herbert, Neale, and Keble spring easily to mind. This poetry is first order reflection on the experience of the liturgy and the reality of God but, as you note, other people don’t seem to care.
Some appear to think that a book cannot contain theology unless it is filled with clunky, obscure prose. No wonder they have such difficulties with the Bible…
Derek, I am torn at the moment: how do I bow to you in deep respect and hug you with great affection — at the same time?
Truly elegant words – in both the aesthetic and mathematical senses of the word! You are speaking of the “overlap” of the worlds which we should learn by just considering the implications of the Incarnation — that impossible (but inescapable) absolute bonding of the “here” and the “there”!
It seems to me that we are constantly living with the clash between the inexplicable and mystical Eastern Religion (of Alexandria and Byzantium) with the rationalizing and codifying compulsion of the Western mind (Rome).
And as I see it, the problem rises not in considering “what happened” or even “why it happened” but fussing about with HOW it happened — and I have found that the perhaps the deepest advantage of my advanced age is that I no longer give much of a damn about the mechanics.
I find that I am more than willing to live with inexplicable clouds of mystery because I have found just a few intuitive moments when I simply sense I have met truth face-to-face.
Further, I am aware that anything I say about my own experience is vapid and inadequate, no matter how carefully I construct it verbally. So I like to think that at least a few of those early bishop/priests at their baptismal baths and at least some of the bishops at Nicaea (or wherever) faced the same conundrum, and “settled” for the admittedly imprecise and inadequate creedal words (which I recognize for what they are and nonetheless wholeheartedly embrace them).
So I find myself fleeing from “literality”, shaking my head in pity at the poverty of Evangelicalism (aware that by-and-large there are predictably few Protestant mystics).
Well, forgive this autobiographical effusion. I really just want to say that you strike a true chord here, and to thank you for it.
And, yes, Caelius, you are absolutely spot on!
Let’s not forget our children’s book authors and our good preachers. The genre in which we do theology at its best is simply not as a whole to set out a systematic. These genre engage the mind in ways that are different from more linear approaches, and come closer, to my mind to the biblical texts and our record of encounters with the Living God in liturgy. You might say they’re liturgical genre?
Manual Trackback: Christianity and the Children of Her Handmaid
You might want to check out my recent book “The Scientific Worldview” at http://www.thescientificworldview.com.
Derek, you put you finger on a real problem here, but as one of those rationally-inclined Western Christians ;-), I have a hard time resting content with multiple worldviews.
I think what we need is a larger worldview that can absorb and make sense of both the established truths of science and the truths of the creeds, one that recognizes that truth is one, but our access to truth may have multiple routes and uncover different aspects of it.
Some of the most promising work here (IMO) has been done by Anglicans. I’m thinking of folks like John Polkinghorne and Keith Ward, among others. I’d be curious to hear what you think of their work.
I’m not familiar with their work, Lee, but will check it out when I have a chance.