Wednesday, September 29, 2004

more science, theology too

For as much as some people try to keep science and theology in separate camps, it's entertaining just to observe how impossible that really is. Scientific discoveries oftentimes direct our theological inquiries, and the opposite is true as well -- our theologies (or maybe a better word would be worldview) almost always drive scientific thought. During much of the 20th century, scientific thought about space and time dominated popular physics. From Plank to Eintstein, Hubble to Hawkins, we've seen so much being said about the relationship between our three dimensional physical world and the "fourth dimension" of time. While I understand little of it, it's interesting to note that while science has been preoccupied with time, and specifically its relativity to the physical world, 20th century theology found itself grappling with some of the same issues regarding time.

But I'm not real concerned with time here. What I'm more concerned with how much Greek thought use to influence our view of the cosmos, and how it still dominates our view of God. I guess a good place to start with the discussion is Aristotle, because his ideas about the physical world were so closely related to his philosophical framework, that his thought framed the debate for both scientists and theologians. Primary for Aristotle's worldview was that earth was at the center of the universe, and that everything else -- the sun, moon, planets, and stars -- revolved around it. (Aristotle was convinced the earth was round, and also believed celestial bodies were round as well, orbiting earth is perfect circular trajectories. He really had a thing for circles.) Aristotle had the philosophical belief that objects at rest were in their perfected state, so the earth, being at the center of it all, was the most perfect object. This had implications for his idea of the divine, as well.

The divine state was one of rest, too; immobility was a state of perfection, because it implied that there was nothing better to achieve. At rest, a being has no need for anything else -- they have attained a perfection. If, say, I needed to use the washroom, I wouldn't be in a state of perfection, because there was something I needed to do before I could be at rest. If, after that, I needed to learn about the history of the British monarchy, I would still not be in state of perfection, because I would still not be at rest. It would not be until I had achieved a fullness in everything, from knowledge to physical needs to an uncanny skill at skee ball, that I would finally be perfect, in a state of eternal rest.

You probably see where this is going. Early Christianity, when faced with Greek thought, incorporated much of this thinking into our view God. Because God was perfect there was nothing He didn't know, hadn't done, or couldn't do (God therefore, knew British history, had traveled the Alps by horseback, and most certainly was a master skew-ball player). But Christians didn't stop there. We adapted the Aristotelian cosmological view, too. Placing the earth at the center of the universe, surrounded by the plants and sun, beyond which lay heaven. Aristotle sort of filled in the blanks for us that the Bible had left out. He gave Christianity its intellectual oomph.

Then, a few hundred years later, everything started falling apart. Aristotle was convinced that anything that was important could be figured out by simply thinking about it long enough. When people started actually observing how things worked, they realized that Aristotle was wrong about so very, very much. Copernicus suggested that perhaps the sun was at the center of the solar system, with the earth in circular orbit. Kepler surmised that elliptical orbits worked best for predictions of planets, though he had a hard time philosophically giving up circular orbits. Galileo discovered moons around Jupiter, proving that not every celestial body orbited really orbited the earth. Along with Kepler, he finally proved that the Copernican view of the planets was correct. Newton figured out the mathematics to prove all this, and to predict future movements. All of this was based on observations of the natural world. By watching how things worked in certain situations, we began to get a sense of how they worked in all situations, predicting how things would work in the future.

Theologians went two very different ways after that. Some rejected any hint of the supernatural or miraculous, because it couldn't be reproduced or observed under controlled conditions. Miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection -- all went flying out the window of superstition once reason and the scientific method moved in. Other theologians clung tightly to the miraculous, and like Aristotle, tried to think their way (and, so they thought, God) out of the problem. Since then, we've come up with quite the cornucopia of ideas, ranging from the dogmatic to the ridiculous. It's been a stirring time for theology, but a rough time for the Christian faith.

We still cling to that old Aristotelian view of God, even if we've given up on his cosmological model. But remember, just as his model of the universe was based on pure thought, so was his model of God. If we can come up with a model for the world based upon observation, why can't we come up with a model for God based upon observation as well?

Okay, so what would that model look like? At first glance, it seems impossible. How can we possibly observe God, who can't experience with our five basic senses the way we can experience falling bodies, elliptical orbits, and Jupiter's moons? Some people just give up, claiming its impossible to reconcile Christianity (and faith) with scientific observation (and reason). But hold on just a minute. What if, some way beyond our understanding, God broke through into our world, and BAM! -- showed up on our doorstep in a way that we could observe him with our five senses?

Hmmm...if only....there...was...a...way.....

Oh, that's right. He actually did show up. He showed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and the whole nation of Israel. And if that weren't enough, he stopped being soley God long enough to be God and human for a while, too. So that we could interact with him without our faces melting off and our brains running out our noses. The Incarnation is the ultimate in scientific observation! Jesus had parents, he got famous by having some really radical ideas (and healing all sorts of people). Everyone in Judea knew who he was, but then he got even more famous by dying. And, if you can believe his rag-tag bunch of disciples, he actually came back to life, with a real body and the very real scars to prove he really had died in the first place!

So why do we stick with the old Aristotelian view of God, one the philosopher came up with just by thinking of something really perfect? Why don't we move to this other view, of a God that was actually around for humanity to observe and check out, and whose friends had the foresight to write about, so that everyone could hear about what they had experienced?

(Now isn't the time to go into whether or not Jesus was really God, or if the Gospel's really contain the full truth of what he said, or if the church made him into God because the were crazy or power hungry or something. There's another time for that whole debate. I guess my target audience here isn't really seekers or doubters, but those who've already bought into Jesus as the second person of the Trinity.)

But we still cling to these old thoughts of God, even if they were based on a faulty cosmological model of the universe. While I'm not advocating that science say what we can and can't believe about God, I think it's time we put our view of God to the same test that we put our view of the universe to. We've got the material at our disposal, all we've got to do to is study and observe. Was Jesus actually God because he had perfect knowledge, and at rest, needing nothing from his people? Did his mission really mean anything? Or was Jesus God because he loved perfectly, and was constantly on the go, meeting the needs of his people, sacrificing his "perfect life" in heaven to bring his Creation back to the Father?

It's hard to give up our view that God cannot change in any respect. But he has changed. He laughs and cries alongside with us. That's change. He experienced what it was like to be born, and what it was like to die. That's change. And if you can stomach it, the Bible even claims that he has, on occasion, regretted his actions. That's a whopper of a change. But no matter your view on the riskiness of God's actions, you have to admit that the church has for too long clung to this old view of God, based on pure thought, and on not his character and activity found in the Bible.

It's time we sat down and observed what God is like -- because that's the whole purpose of divine revelation: To uncover what was once hidden, making the truth knowable to any and all who seek it.

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