The Argument Begins

Thoughts for our discussion – January 22

In her opening chapter Elizabeth Johnson writes,

“As a work of theology this book explores the Christian tradition, seeking to illuminate the religious meaning of the ecological world of species. It charts one way to see that – far from being simply ‘nature’ in a neutral sense, and far from being made only for human use – these living species have an intrinsic value in their own right. Once one understands that the evolving community of life on Earth is God’s beloved creation and its ruination an unspeakable sin, then deep affection shown in action on behalf of eco-justice becomes an indivisible part of one’s life. (Ask the Beasts, p. xiv)

[But ] …. “over the centuries…theology narrowed its interest to focus on human beings almost exclusively. Our special identity, capacities, roles, sinfulness, and need for salvation became the all consuming interest. …. Even the theology of creation… receded to become a backdrop for the human drama. The natural world was simply there as something God created for human use. Theology lost touch with the universe.” (Ask the Beasts, p. 2-3)

And so Johnson asks,
How can theology today recognize the central importance of the natural world?
A blunter way to ask this question is the familiar,
Can science and religion be reconciled?”

Book of nature
The Book of Nature and/or The Book of Scripture

An old, old argument

Here’s a medieval argument for you:

Is there more than one way to obtain knowledge of God, or can we only learn about God from Holy Scripture?

Early in the Middle Ages, as the works of the Greek philosophers were recovered, theologians and philosophers (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) began to view the natural world as another ‘Book’ to be read alongside their scriptures. They argued that, when ‘read’ alongside sacred Scripture, study of the natural world could also lead to a knowledge of God.

But by the 16th century, the ‘Book of Nature’ was acquiring greater authority as a source of knowledge – both natural and spiritual. In addition, people were ‘reading’ nature not for understanding of God, but simply for greater understanding of nature. Scholars, philosophers and theologians were increasingly concerned that the two ‘Books’ would eventually collide. They saw the possibility of two separate and incompatible worlds – one turning to Scripture for knowledge and truth, the other turning to the physical and natural sciences.

So, can we talk?

In her first chapter, Johnson summarizes Ian Barbour ‘s four types of dialogue and then adds a fifth model (see p. 7-12):

• Conflict – One or both parties make claims that overlap assertions made by the other side, each contending that only their position is legitimate. (Evolution has been a particularly fertile field for this type of warfare. Christian fundamentalists interpret Genesis’ creation story literally, setting up an unyielding conflict with science. Others conclude that a creator (as described by the fundamentalists) does not exist, and natural explanations are the last and only word on all reality.)

• Independence – Science and religion may simply ignore each other and go about their own business; there is no overlap because each serves a different function in human life. (Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ is an example of Independence). But since scientific knowledge is essential to the way modern people perceive the world, it cannot be set aside – and since few people manage to live in a mentally bifurcated world, the need for a coherent worldview becomes pressing.

• Dialogue – Since both science and religion deal with the same world, sharing insights from each field may enrich or correct the other. Dialogue theology doesn’t seek to prove religious tenets by appealing to scientific information, but it looks for new religious insights in the new scientific information.  The conversation is based on the conviction that reason is not the enemy of faith, that “the book of nature and the book of scripture have the same author”.

• Integration – Integration takes dialogue a step further. One example is modern process philosophy/theology, which has been shaped by fundamental insights from both evolutionary science and Christian religious thought. Process philosophy’s insight is that God is the source of novelty, immanent in the processes of the world, and operating through persuasive rather than dominating power.

• Practical cooperation – Elizabeth Johnson adds a fifth model to Barbour’s categories: Whether we are coming from a religious or an atheistic position, we can still commit to working together for the preservation of the natural world.

In Ask the Beasts Johnson opts for dialogue (conducting a ‘conversation’ between Darwin’s book and the Nicene Creed), and for practical cooperation (arguing that whether we are atheists, agnostics, or people of faith, we can still work together for the world we all love).

Can ‘Believers’ and ‘Non-believers’ learn to work together on behalf of ecojustice?

Or, as someone so beautifully put it in last Thursday’s discussion, can we agree that we are all ‘Beholders’, and work together to preserve the world we live in?


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One thought on “The Argument Begins

  1. Johnson’s description of the categories of dialog helped me to see how discussions run off into the ditch, when the parties are speaking from different premises. Integration seemed far advanced for me. Dialog and practical cooperation make sense to me.

    I haven’t been much troubled by the areas in which science is unable to explain a metaphysical phenomenon. I figured some day I will know the answer — or not — and that is good enough for my needs at this point. When I do contemplate more complex questions, one intrigues me: At what point along human evolution does the soul step in? Perhaps humanoids all along the way have souls, but at some point there’s confusion: Is this a primate that can be considered humanoid? Must we look farther along the development, to a species that recognizes virtue? An afterlife? Elephants seem to recognize the bones of their fellows. If we have the heart to observe, animals show emotion. Then, do all animals have souls? Could be — but then the question simply gets moved back: what about single=celled organisms? At what point on that scale does the soul step in?

    This question doesn’t press on me, but I look forward to some day knowing. And perhaps meeting some Neanderthals in Heaven.

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