Thursday, May 17, 2007

Introduction to Nanotheology, Part 4: Going Medieval

Before I embark on really walking through my ideas, I've been debating what nanotheology really means. (Also, I have three conferences this month and two big deadlines next month, so I've been posting a little infrequently.) What concerns me most about nanotheology is, how is it really theology? Isn't it a bottom-up enterprise while theology should be top-down? Since I admire Karl Barth, shouldn't I follow his model of understanding the importance of God's own specific revelation through Jesus rather than what we can glean by looking at creation?

A book that I recently read during my "blogging break" helped crystallize these questions for me. It was Stanley Hauerwas' Gifford Lectures, titled With the Grain of the Universe. The Gifford Lectures are a prominent series established long ago at St. Andrews University to discuss natural theology. Many prominent theologians and scientists have taken up the challenge in different ways: recent Gifford lecturers have ranged from Carl Sagan to Alasdair MacIntyre to, well, Stanley Hauerwas. What's especially nice about Hauerwas's lectures is that they engage three previous prominent lecturers: William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. They tell a story and set the stage for Hauerwas' own natural theology, which is centered on the revelation of Jesus. If that seems paradoxical to you, it probably would have seemed so to Lord Gifford as well.

I admire Hauerwas and Barth, and I think the fact that Barth's theology allowed him to stand up to Nazi Germany when much of the rest of the church was being co-opted and strong-armed is a powerful "experiment" proving the strength of Barth's stance. And (to hear some discuss it) Barth hated natural theology. He saw it as an excuse for a man-centered, rather than a God-centered theology. As Hauerwas explains, it's not exactly natural theology vs. Barth, but it's more complex than that. There's clearly a tension. With this tension in mind, how does one undergo a God-centered natural theology project without lapsing into fussy sentimentalism or rigid materialism?

Most of this I will work out by trying, and by demonstrating. I don't intend to discard revelation and prove God from first principles here. Rather, I want to find metaphors at newly discovered levels that are coherent with the revelation established and given. I think it's most important to point out that my intention is not to find some microscopic proof that would force people to believe in God. There is nothing out there like that, quite the opposite. God doesn't force us to love him (and couldn't!). Therefore, Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures were all about how God doesn't exist. That is where natural theology leads if you intend to start from nature and end up in theology.

My intention is different, more like that of Thomas Aquinas (I hope!). People look at Aquinas' proofs for God and think they look kind of silly these days. And they do look silly if by proof you mean evidence that forces a skeptic to a conclusion. That wasn't Aquinas' intention. Let me quote Hauerwas:

"For example, although Aquinas's Prima Pars of the Summa is often identified as natural theology, Aquinas never so described his work. George Hendry observes that it is seldom noticed that the so-called proofs for the existence of God were perfected at a time when the existence of God was barely questioned. Calling attention to what he calls Aquinas's 'little coda' that ends each of the five ways -- 'and this everyone understands to be God' -- Hendry notes that the problem in the time of Aquinas 'was not really to persuade people to believe in God, but to help them to relate their belief in God to the nature and conditions of the world and to see that their belief in God and their understanding of the world mutually illumine each other.'"

When reading this, I realized that I was assuming an almost-medieval mindset, saying, we know this about God from scripture, we know this about nature from science, what do the two say when we put them next to each other? So that's what I see in nature: not a proof of God, but a world illuminated by revelation. I'm talking about what I see, not trying to make you see it this way, if that's the way to put it. It's a combination of two things, not trying to employ one of them in the service of the other. Two books, two eyes, separate but focused on the same thing, and overlapping.

Which makes me wonder if "nanotheology" isn't a misnomer. This is really more about the nano than the theology. But if it's understood at the start that the theology comes from revelation and the nano comes from science, then we're talking about the point where two rivers meet.

So that's my idea. Any questions? Examples? Thoughts?

1 comment:

Geoff said...

Hey Ben, in the introduction to our Barth class, Prof. Burton described Barth's aversion to "natural theology" this way (let's see if I can do this justice):

It's not that God doesn't reveal Himself in the natural order, but since the revelation is in the creation, it reveals only God as creator. But what we need is God as redeemer and savior, which is only found in the revelation of Jesus Christ. So for the Christian theologian, attempting to discover God in the natural order is a waste of time and energy, therefore he vigorously opposed it. I'm sure that's an oversimplification, but that's my understanding so far. I guess the next logical question is, if you're not a theologian, might "natural theology" be of some value for Christians in other disciplines. At this point, I'm leaning toward 'Yes'.