If everything is sacramental, is anything a sacrament? (creation, disenchantment, and a tweet)

wanderer above sea fogLast week I was feeling puckish, so I tweeted out, “What if, and just go with me here, what if only the sacraments are sacramental?”

I think most people got that I was being somewhat playful.  Still, some folks were, well, they weren’t entirely pleased. So I wanted to quickly unpack some very rough, very semi-developed, in-transition thoughts on that, which also happen to dovetail with last week’s short post on “disenchantment” narratives.

First, let me clear the deck and just say I am very much pro-sacraments, value baptism, celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, and understanding them to be doing something more significant than mere memorialism. I went Reformed partly for Calvin’s strong doctrine of the sacraments. They have become central to my understanding of the Church, the preaching of the Gospel, and the practice of the faith in a way they never were before.

That said, I’ll admit I’ve been a bit suspicious of a certain sort of spirituality of “sacramentality” that’s hot in, well, semi-nerdy, theology circles. Of late it’s been hot to talk about “sacramental ontology” and how terrible it is that it’s been lost due to whatever cause (Protestantism, nominalism, univocity, etc.–though often not technology, which is probably the biggest culprit), and how we need to regain it, and so forth.

The problem is, most of the time I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by that phrase “sacramental ontology.” Nor am I entirely sure others do when they use it.  At least, people seem to be much potential for equivocation and confusion in the midst of all the excitement. To quote the great philosopher Chazz Michael Michaels, “nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative; it gets the people going.” And so, yes, I was poking fun at that. (Maybe that’s unfair, and not really academic, but it’s Twitter, so what do you expect?)

Still, I think I get why some were annoyed. For some of the folks who go in for it, it has to do with seeing in the sacraments an antidote towards modern disenchantment. Last week I talked about one thread, or version of the “disenchantment” narrative having to do with the loss of belief in the supernatural, spirits, fairies, God himself, etc. But another thread has to do with a sense that the universe becomes a different sort of space in the modern period. Creation becomes mere nature, organism becomes mechanism, and the sense of wonder one has at beholding the stars is reduced from being a functioning of the sensus divinitatus to mere physio-psychological epiphenomenon. If you take your eyes off your phone long enough to even look up at the stars.

How do the sacraments function against this? Well, for some the sacraments tell us that “matter matters”, or that the stuff of the material order can actually function as a medium of divine grace. God can use stuff to communicate truth to us about himself. The world, with its order and beauty, is not just dead nature, but the appointed, spatio-temporal medium of our encounter with our Creator.

Now, so far as that goes, I’m all fine with that. David hymns God for the way nature declares God’s glory in Psalm 19. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that the world testifies to God’s existence and power. And the seraphim remind us in their hymn the Lord in Isaiah 6 that the whole earth is full of his glory. So Calvin: “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Leaning into a solid, biblical doctrine of creation will push back on much of that sense of disenchantment.

And so, yes, from a certain angle, you can argue that one of the key advantages of the Protestant doctrine of the sacraments, precisely in its rejection of transubstantiation, is a defense of created bread and wine as actual elements wherein God meets his people. In doing so, it sort of assumes this anti-disenchantment portrait of creation having a communicative telos to it. 

Some of you may be thinking, “well, Derek, if you’re willing to concede all that, then what is the complaint about?” Well, a couple of things, both of which I will admit may be (probably are) anecdotal senses to things.

As I said, some folks don’t seem to be just saying that. They seem to be importing into all their talk about nature being sacramental something far more akin to a 19th century, mystical, nature-Romanticism under the guise of a properly Christian doctrine of creation and the sacraments. It’s not so much a communicative doctrine of creation, but a magical one. 

Second, maybe more importantly, is the sense that the sacraments themselves are being instrumentalized in a way that washes out and evacuates their own proper meaning. In other words, if I ask you the question, “What are the sacraments about?”, I truly hope your answer is not primarily, “it shows me matter matters,” “the world is an enchanted place,” etc. 

Those may indeed be corollaries down the line. But the primary meaning of the sacraments is the concrete, historical actions that comprise the story of the gospel which they are meant to communicate: dying and rising in union with Christ, sprinkling a clean conscience, being washed pure of your sins, the broken body and shed blood of the Godman given for you, the coming wedding feast of the Lamb, the Father feeding his children, Christ’s New Exodus Passover, communion and participation in Christ’s Body, and so forth. These realities are what the sacraments are about, what they are meant to communicate and effect in us. They are particular signs and seals of a particular gospel covenant.

But when your focus is on how the sacraments show us that everything is sacramental, well, you’ve lost the sacraments. Or, to quote The Incredibles, when Elastigirl tells Dash, “everybody is special, Dash,” he replies, “which is another way of saying nobody is.” My worry is that when we’re entranced with everything being sacramental, nothing will be a proper sacrament.

As I said, this is all too brief and not very carefully worked out, but there it is. I’d be happy to read folks follow-up, additional thoughts, clarifications, and so forth. But for now, I here tweet, and I can do no other.

Soli Deo Gloria

A few thoughts on Charlottesville, Race, and Church Practices

I did not say much about the horror in Charlottesville over the weekend beyond a few things on Twitter. Many wiser, clearer heads had spoken and were speaking and it made more sense to share their thoughts. After church yesterday, though, I was left with a couple theological meditations on the practices of the church and the issue of race. They are small and incomplete, and yet I offer them such as they are.

The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus left us a prayer and it’s one my church prays every Sunday. We ask God our Father that he hallow his name–set it apart as Holy and unique–among us and in all the world. We expand on this by asking him that his kingdom come, his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To ask God for his kingdom to come is to pray for many things, but central among them is the gift of justice. To know God as Holy is know God as the just in all his judgments (Rev. 16:5).

What’s more, this prayer is a self-involving prayer. Praying the Lord’s Prayer cultivates in us a desire, a longing, to see the justice of our God done here and now in this world. We make these petitions of God recognizing that if justice is to come in this world, however much is possible before Christ’s final advent in justice, it is only and ultimately by his hand and will.

And yet, God’s hand works in and through us. God involves his children. Working for justice is not opposed to trusting in the Lord for justice. We do not bring the kingdom of God, but we work for it nonetheless, and trust God to give the growth (1 Cor. 3). And this is true of our work to oppose the works of darkness in our hearts and communities, including racism, and in this country, the lasting legacy of white supremacy.

One more point. In the second half of the prayer, we also pray for God’s provision (“our daily bread”), protection (“keep us from the evil One”), and transforming grace (“forgive us as we forgive”). All of these are essential.

We work in God’s strength. What’s more, we need to recognize that we work against opposition. Not primarily the flesh and blood racists we can see, though, but against the principalities and powers which stand behind them, blinding the hearts and minds of those under their thrall (Eph. 6). So we pray. And we remember to forgive as God has forgiven us our own sins. It is in that forgiveness we hope that just as God transformed our stony hearts, he might transform theirs as well as we witness to the Gospel of Jesus.

It is only as the Church depends on God’s provision, protection, and transforming grace that our work for justice can be the kind which demonstrates the Name of our Father.

The Lord’s Supper

We also celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week. As one body we share one loaf and one cup with our one Lord through whom our one Father feeds us in the one Spirit we share. In it we hear the promises of the one Gospel. One Supper flows from one Gospel. This one Gospel is the good news of our one Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the Son become man by taking on our one humanity, putting it to death, and raising it to new life again in his resurrection. And it is this one humanity that is made in the Image of our one God.

It is precisely this oneness that any doctrine of racial supremacy and superiority violates. For that reason, I do not think it wrong to speak of such teachings such as white supremacy, not merely as sin, but as damnable heresy. It violates so many doctrines in the faith and practice of the Church, there is simply no gospel left on the other side of it.

The Supper stands, then, as testimony that now there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, black or white, but all are one in Christ who redeems and restores the original unity of humanity in a higher register. To practice the Lord’s Supper is to tacitly condemn the sin and unrighteousness of racial exaltation or subjugation. A racially-divided Supper is no Supper at all.

And yet the beauty of the Supper is that it is not primarily condemnation. It also stands as a witness to the gospel. It is an invitation out of these divisions into the unity of the body, into the family of God who share the feast of the Father’s forgiveness. Here in the Supper we begin to taste the justice and reconciliation of our God.

Of course, for people to hear the invitation out of sin and into life, it must be articulated as such. Which means sin, including racism, must be named as sin. This will take courage and wisdom. But then, so do most of the Christian life and ministry. Our God is faithful, though. He will direct the path of those who call on him and strengthen the voices of those who cry to him for aid. His Kingdom shall come, his Will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. For all his children.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Becker and the Anti-Hero Church

beckerI finally got around to reading Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Denial of Death.  Wow, have I been behind the curve. I’m only through the preface and the introduction, but it’s already been an illuminating few pages.

In a nutshell, Becker begins to argue that humans desperately crave cosmic significance—we all need to be heroes who accomplish great deeds of worth and value in order to have a sense of meaning. Cultures, by their nature, provide hero-systems through which we have the framework to achieve that hero-status. In some it is great material accomplishment, in others it is physical heroics, or literary vitality, or religious holiness, and so forth. Cultures are relative in the way hero-systems are constructed, but they all provide them, nonetheless.

Of course, writing after the 1960s and heading into the 1970s, the question that loomed large was: what happens when the major cultural, hero-systems failed? What happened when they were exposed? When it turned out that you could be solid, honest, businessman working for a corrupt corporation? Or that you could throw yourself on a grenade to save your buddies in what ends up being a senseless war? Or that consumerism might just be rotting away at your soul, so that he who had the most toys when he does, dies a villain instead of a hero of industry?

This was the crisis of the youth heading into the 1970s—at least from Becker’s point of view. We all still need that sense of cosmic heroism—a way to achieve meaning in our lives that sustains, strengthens, and drives all our actions. But what do you do when the cultural, hero-systems of the day have all been unmasked?

And here he makes a potent observation about the Church and religious faith:

“And the crisis of society is, of course, the crisis of organized religion too: religion is no longer valid as a hero system, and so the youth scorn it. If traditional culture is discredited as heroics, then the church that supports that culture automatically discredits itself. If the church, on the other hand, chooses to insist on its own special heroics, it might find that in crucial ways it must work against the culture, recruit youth to be anti-heroes to the ways of life of the society they live in. This is the dilemma of religion in our time.”

-Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pg. 7

Written over forty years ago, Becker is still on to something, for better or for worse. Religion and Christianity aren’t totally discredited in the “youth” today, but by most markers, it’s certainly down. Something like thirty percent of millennials identify as “Nones”, and even the more specific, religious confession among the rest is far squishier, syncretistic, and self-consciously peripheral to the core of their lives than in the past.

This is why I see a warning here for the current church, going in two directions.

First, there’s a warning about the danger of a sort of Christian traditionalism that sees itself conserving more traditional culture, almost out of sheer inertia. The kind of “good, old days” golden-ageism that rightly praises the holy elements of cultural, hero-systems of previous generations (stable families, long-term company loyalty, visible religious confession, etc), but tends to be rather myopic about the various, short-comings of its compromises along economic, racial, gender, or social lines.

I’m painting with a broad, maybe unfair brush, but the longing for a return to the days of our parents or grandparents without a critical edge to the various accommodations and failures of the Church as a prop of civil religion, or the “moral, Evangelical, suburban lifestyle” will not help us here.

Of course, the danger we’re likely to be less aware of when reading Becker is of latching onto the next wave of culturally-approved, heroic-meaning-achievement. Seeing that the Church has been identified with older, hero-systems that don’t connect and even drive off the youth, there’s a rush to jump on any bandwagon and the ideologies attached to it, in order to show that “Christianity really does get (insert issue X)” so as to catch the wave. And that may work for a while.

But in the long-run,  there’s got to be something distinctively Christian about the way the Church invites people into a meaningful life that doesn’t simply end up being a version of their neighbor’s meaning-system with a Bible-verse attached to it–because when that goes (and it always goes), so does the Christianity that’s attached to it. Or, even more—if Christianity just presents itself as another version of the currently-appealing hero-system, then why bother with it? Today’s progressivism may be (and likely will be) tomorrow’s traditionalism. And given the vagaries and inconsistencies of history, some hero-systems considered regressive today, may end up making a comeback in the near-future.

So, for instance, it’s right and good to show that Christianity has a deep logic to it which funds the work of activism for broader racial and social justice. The gospel does have social implications along those lines. But when you do so,  you have to do the hard work of showing the way these currently common values are rooted into the distinctively Christian story of Christ and him crucified, or the way that the Church offers certain distinctive ways of approaching reconciliation and truth in ways that might run counter to the dominant, activist, hero-system. Indeed, that they’re not even really part of a typical hero-system, in that sense.

Otherwise, what happens when people get burned out by that system? What happens when you’re a failure within it? When you just don’t measure up? Or key personalities within the movement end up exposed? Or someone hijacks the cause for personal gain? Or the acids of deconstructive suspicion begin to eat away even at the struggle for justice? At that point, are there distinctively Christian practices and theological values of grace, forgiveness, Sabbath, or truth-telling, rooted in the cross and resurrection of Christ, that continue to fund this work in the Church even when the rest of the world has moved on to the next, big thing?

I’m not sure that will happen, but as with so many of the great, meaning-imbuing causes of the last few centuries, it’s a possibility. Christianity needs to have a message, then, that does one thing that Becker hints at and another that he doesn’t.

First, it needs to cultivate—at least in some areas—what Becker called an “anti-hero” ethic. This is often what some refer to as a sense of being “counter-cultural.” I say that with trepidation, mostly because of the sort of criticisms my friend Matthew Lee Anderson has noted with the cheaper appeals to it. But all the same, that sensibility of knowing that Christianity stands apart (even at those moments when it stands in solidarity with!) the meaning-systems of the world is important if it is to not get dragged down into with them when they sink.

Of course, even more obvious than engaging those areas we do share in a distinctive way, we’ll be required to simply refuse to go along with others. We will have to stand apart not only the way we do things, but in what we do and advocate altogether. The rush towards reinventing every aspect of sexual and gender ethics seems to be only the most obvious example. This is one of those areas where, yes, progress in understanding can be made to a degree, but unsurprisingly we will likely have to stand almost entirely apart and inhabit the freakish space the early church did in this regard.

Second, the even more radical move that Becker does not suggest is to show the way that Christianity up-ends the normal modes of cultural hero-systems altogether. In the cross and resurrection, Christ delivers us from the elements of the world—the typical, socio-religious systems of meaning-creation—and hero-systems our world offers us to achieve our own identity, our sense of cosmic worth, by introducing us into a new cosmos altogether.

In that cosmos, it is not we who achieve our meaning and significance, but Christ from whom we receive it by faith. By faith we are united with Christ and so participate in his life, death, and resurrection which reform the world altogether, imbuing it with its true meaning and purpose.Ours is a meaning and purpose derived, dependent, and secure in his.

Yes, we are invited into his kingdom, into his Church, into a truly meaningful way of living in the world, but all the same, when we preach that message, we offer people a Christianity that stands truly apart from all the meaning-systems of the world. It is a distinctive faith with a distinctive life drawn from its distinctive center—the Lord Jesus Christ. We are different because he is different. We are invited to embrace “anti-heroes” to the ways of life of the world precisely because Jesus, our hero, was crucified by them, rose, and conquered them in himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Hillsong and “Hip Church”

Mere FidelityGQ ran a fascinating article last month entitled, “What Would Cool Jesus Do?” It was essentially a long-form investigation of Hillsong NYC, trying to figure out the phenomenon that manages to pull in thousands of young, cool New Yorkers including people like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. We figured that was worth discussing, so Matt, Alastair, and I took it up in this episode of Mere Fidelity.

Thanks for listening.

Soli Deo Gloria

Four Themes for Pastor Theologians at the CPT Conference 2015

pastor theologianThis week I had the privilege of attending The Center for Pastor Theologians’ first annual conference in Oak Park. I’ve been excited about it for some time, not simply because of the buzz around the subject right now, but also because of the space I inhabit in my own studies, having recently (temporarily?) left my position in the local church. Now, I unfortunately could only make one of the days, but thankfully, it was the largest bulk of the time. That said, what I did catch was on point. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand know how to put a conference together.

First off, Calvary Memorial felt like it was designed to host this sort of event. I mean, really, when I say it’s beautiful, I’m not just blowing smoke. Second, the size of the conference was really nice. I’m terrible with numbers, but it seemed like maybe two hundred or so people were, which is great for meeting, chatting, and feeling like you’re not being herded around like a bunch of cattle. I had the pleasure of meeting a number pastors and students working through some of issues I’ve been chewing on. Beyond that, the line-up was great. Not only the plenaries–which I’ll get to–but the breakout sessions, which featured speakers who could have easily been plenary speakers. If I had some spare cash and any extra time to read, the exhibitor section would have been tempting as well, with their sizable discount on books. All that to say, I look forward to coming back next year.

Oh, and one more thing: I think the thing that surprised me the most was the worship. For one thing, I was surprised at how good it was. The worship team had a tightly ordered, historic, yet contemporary liturgical order with each plenary session that actually ministered to some burdens in my soul. And that’s the second thing: I expected to be challenged and stimulated intellectually, there, but I was blessed to be comforted spiritually. But shouldn’t spiritual benefit be one of the impacts of a theological conference?

The Speakers

Now, as I mentioned, I only made it for the Tuesday portion, but that included the plenaries by Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, and Kevin Vanhoozer. While I was sad to miss Wilson and Hiestand’s pieces and the panel discussion, I was far from feeling robbed. All three were in fine form. Leithart discussed the Pastor as Biblical theologian, Smith, the Pastor as Political theologian, and Vanhoozer, the Pastor as Public theologian. Here’s what was funny: while all of the talks were distinct, content-rich, and focused on different aspects of the pastor’s theological work, there were some very clear–though, I think, unplanned–commonalities and themes. What I’d like to do is highlight four of them, summarizing and drawing on the different talks to do so.

Local. The first theme that clearly stood out was their focus on the local setting of the pastor. Leithart explicitly grounded his reflections around the activities of of the preacher in the “parish” ministry of study, pulpit, and table, as he sees one of the challenges of the pastor as biblical theologian is to develop new methods since much biblical scholarship that’s arisen in the academy is simply unusable by the church. As Vanhoozer joked, “Location! Location! Location!” is not only a principle of real estate, but of the reality of gospel-theologizing. Local pastors are theologians who are to know the specific locales–geographical, cultural, and spiritual–of the people (the public) to whom they are ministering. Smith even spoke of pastors as cultural ethnographers who are keen observers of their people and their environments, observing and reflecting on the cultural liturgies that shape the polis that exerts spiritual formative influence on their people.

Apocalyptic. Connected with this is the pastor as “apocalyptic” theologian. I believe the term was Smith’s, but it easily could apply to all three, though especially Leithart who framed his reflections around a close reading Revelation 17. In any case, local pastor-theologians are to be keen cultural observers, in part, in order to “unveil” and unmask the unreality of the prominent paradigms of the good life shaping our people without their understanding. Smith spoke of the “purging of the Christian imagination” that is partly the work of the pastor theologian who exegetes the festivals and practices of Empire. A theological sociologist, of sorts. Vanhoozer also stressed the formative power of culture, returning to some the themes from his work Everyday TheologyPart of ministering the reality of what is “in Christ” to the public of your people, means exposing the lies of the principalities and powers at work in the everyday rituals and narratives that hold our imaginations captive to the bestial practices of Empire.

Canonical. Of course, unsurprisingly, all three stressed the ministry of the Word as forming a canonical consciousness. Vanhoozer noted that the sermon is the “quintessential theological act”, which pastor-theologians practice in order to communicate the excellence of Christ and shape the congregation into who they already are in Christ. Leithart also stressed the ministry of the Word, suggesting that for the Word to have this effect, sermons must begin to take the shape of deep Bible studies, which illumine the narratival, typological, and theological depth of the texts, in order for our people to begin to inhabit the world of the Gospel. Hearing his phenomenal handling of Revelation 17 and the various theological, cultural, and political implications in his presentation, it’s hard to disagree. Looking to the practice of St. Augustine, Smith emphasized the preaching of the Word as well, but also pointed to Augustine’s theological work in his letters to the general Boniface, in which he gave biblical counsel in order to shape Boniface’s vocational self-understanding. The theological ministry of the Word expands beyond the pulpit for the pastor of a sent people living in a secular age.

Liturgical. Finally, all three, unsurprisingly if you know their work, emphasized the liturgy and especially ministering the sacraments as key theological activities of pastor theologians, both for shaping their theologizing and their people. Vanhoozer says the Lord’s Supper is the “summa and apologia” of the gospel; it is a “verbal, visual, and visceral” summary of the good news. As such, it is a powerfully formative liturgical practice for shaping the theological imagination of the polis of the church. The Table and the Pulpit go together in the work of the pastor theologian.

Of course, I’m still barely scratching the surface of these talks, especially since abstracting commonalities like this obscures the unique arguments of Leithart, Smith, and Vanhoozer. For that reason, I’d encourage you to go check out these talks and those of Hiestand and Wilson on the CPT Vimeo channel, which will be posted up by next Monday. I know I’ll be checking in to catch up on the sections I missed myself. In the meantime, they’ve got some helpful videos already up.

To sum up, the conference was a

Soli Deo Gloria

On “Moving The Conversation Forward”

conversationI don’t know how often I’ve heard the phrase “moving the conversation forward.” We could be talking sex ethics, church and culture, science and faith, or whatever. Every subject has a conversation around it and it’s always supposed to be going forward. Now, I have to say, I don’t always know what that means. Of course, it’s very simple to say what the string of words mean together. There is a “conversation” between interlocutors on an issue, and it is to be “moved forward.” But meaning is also a function of use. So there’s a question of “how is this being used?” Well, I can think of three senses.

First, there’s the idea of “growth in mutual understanding.” When you start a conversation between people who disagree on an issue, it’s possible to be separated from each other in at least two senses. First, you can disagree on the issue. I support A, and you support B. Second, we can disagree about what the issue even is. I might support A, but you think I support C, and while you support B, I suppose you support D. In this case, the conversation can “move forward” when we grow to understand each other’s actual position, even if neither of us actually move away from our original position.

Second, there’s the sense of “new, intellectual ground being broken.” In this usage, it could be that while you support B and I support A, in the conversation, it’s possible that in the course of the conversation we find that E is an option that neither of us had been considered before that deals with both of our concern. In this option, an impasse is broken and we both move forward together.

Third, there is the sense of “you move to agreeing with me.” In this case, I support A, which is further beyond B, and so the conversation moves forward when you catch up with me. And this, I take it, is actually the most common use.

Here’s the couple of interesting things I’ve noticed about the these senses:

First, the third sense is usually somewhat hidden, or parasitic on the first or the second uses. In other words, when many today suggest we try to “move the conversation forward”, the idea is we’re to be open to find a new middle ground, or move towards greater mutual understanding is implied. And who doesn’t want that? But the problem comes when you enter the conversation, under the guise of the first or second sense, yet what you really mean is the third.

Second, we often don’t notice that in inviting people to “move the conversation forward” in the second sense, you’re already asking them to accept the premise that whatever position they currently hold is unworkable and ought to be moved beyond. But even there you’re subtly begging the question.

Of course, I don’t think most people don’t do this consciously. Rather, we subconsciously assume that “if the discussion is properly had, once you actually understand my views, you’ll end up agreeing with me.”  Or, “if the discussion is properly had, once we actually talk it all through, we’ll end up with some third position that’s not yours.” We have trouble imagining that at the end of the conversation, at least one or both of us will remain in the same place, or that it “moves forward” only in the first sense.

This is caught up with another phenomena I’ve noted before, which is our tendency to think that everyone holding a position on an issue (atonement, salvation, etc) must be in the same place in the process of discernment that we ourselves are. So, if I’m only now discovering the other side’s view on a subject, and I’ve hitherto held my position naively, then I tend to assume that all of my interlocutors must be in that same epistemic boat. It fails to occur to me that others might have had those “conversations”, made their judgments on the issue one way or another, and have now justifiably moved on to a different conversation entirely.

In any case, this equivocation on the sense of the term “moving the conversation forward” is a peeve precisely because of its rhetorically obscuring quality. Instead of openly proceeding with the very understandable and commendable goal of trying to debate or persuade someone into a position you hold as true, or out of one you believe is false, we falsely move under the more “humble” guise “moving the conversation forward.” In which case, if you don’t want to be “open” to a new way of thinking because you’ve already given it due thought, well, isn’t that still so “narrow” and backwards and stultifying to the conversation which ought to be going “forward”? It becomes a rather disingenuous rhetorical tool to move the conversation in your direction without owning your intended aims.

I have no solution here other than to commend a greater sense of self-awareness regarding our speech and intentions. There are times when you enter the conversation in order to learn, or in order to move beyond current paradigms, or, quite legitimately, in order to persuade others of a position you honestly hold.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 Principles For Those Times When Theologians and Scientists Disagree

every square inchOne of my favorite clips from pretty much any movie ever comes from the cinematic masterpiece Nacho Libre. When Nacho encourages his luchador partner Eskeleto to pray to the Lord for strength, much to everyone’s surprise, he says, “I don’t believe in God—I believe in science.” It’s hilariously simplistic, but it’s reflective of one of the silly dichotomies too many of our students in the church as well as the broader culture still buy into on a regular basis.

Many of us intuitively feel there’s something wrong with that. Still, when it comes to wrestling with the many apparent conflicts between what we were taught in Sunday School and what we learned in our freshman biology class, we’re often at a loss for how to think of these conflicts. Is it really a matter of science versus faith? Blind faith or intellectual honesty? Obviously I don’t think that’s the case, or I wouldn’t still be a Christian.

Over the years of study, I’ve read enough good apologetics and works of philosophy to feel satisfied knowing that whatever new challenges are proposed, there’s eventually going to be some answer forthcoming. Indeed, I believe we’ve got a number of reasons for thinking that the practice of science is best supported on something like a Christian worldview, with its belief in a regular, orderly universe, created by God to be intelligible to the human intellect. Indeed, ultimately there can be no conflict between the truths of theology and the truths of the hard sciences, as God is the author of their shared reality.

That said, it’s always good to have some basic principles in mind when thinking about those moments when it seems that our best scientist and our best theologians do conflict.

Bruce Riley Ashford provides us with a few such principles in his excellent little introduction to a Reformed theology of culture Every Square Inch. (Check out Trevin Wax’s interview with him here.) Towards the end of his chapter on the Christian motivation to engage the sciences (pp. 84-86), he reminds us of three pertinent facts to keep in mind.

  1. “Either group (theologians or scientists) can err; for that reason, either group should be open to correction.” Theologians and biblical commentators have been wrong in their interpretations before. Mistaking metaphorical language for literalistic descriptions of reality and vice versa, there have certainly been cases of over-interpretation of biblical texts, taking them to teach something far more specific than they were intended to. On the flipside, all you have to do is read a short history of science to see how many different scientific paradigms we’ve gone through to explain gravitational force, the orbit of the planets, and so forth to know that we’ve gotten things wrong before.
  1. “The Bible is not a science book.” I know this is rather obvious to many, but the Bible was not written as a biology text book. There are areas where it makes claims about the physical universe and so forth, but by and large, we’re missing the point if we’re reading it as a guide to physics, chemistry, and so forth. It’s God’s covenant document revealing his character, doings, aims, and intentions towards his people in Christ. This is why we need to be rather careful about over-determining our interpretation of the text in the direction of any particular scientific theory. That’s not what the book is for, so using it for that end leaves it liable to abuse and an unfortunate discreditation in the eyes of those who know the shape of the science it allegedly contradicts.
  1. “Science is constantly changing.” As we already said, scientists have changed their minds about all sorts of things. Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Planck, Einstein. Just run down the list of astronomers and early scientists who modified, tweaked, or overturned each other’s pictures of the universe and you see this to be true. Thomas Kuhn’s famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions probably overstates his thesis about the new worlds that scientists inhabit when they change their models of understanding the world, but it’s instructive on this point. Even the most secure science—models that are fairly unquestioned in their respective fields for decades—are susceptible to revision. For that reason, Christians need to make sure they’re not too hasty revising their interpretations of Scripture or fundamental doctrines to fit some study that emerged only in the last 5 years and could be overturned next Tuesday.

Obviously, these principles aren’t some easy formula that we plug every problem into and get a clean, easy answer. But we shouldn’t really expect that, should we? Theology and the sciences both deal with reality and reality isn’t clean and easy. That said, these are the sort of broad, wise principles that allow us to proceed in our analysis with care, wisdom, and fidelity to God’s Word and without ignoring what we find in our study of God’s good world.