Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bender on Schleiermacher: Will Science Trump Creation Doctrine?

I recently was reading Kimlyn Bender's essay, "Christ, Creation and the Drama of Redemption: 'The Play's the Thing...'" when I came across a claim that grabbed my attention. Bender writes that Friedrich Schleiermacher told a friend not only that advances in modern natural science entail a reinterpretation of the Creator-creature relationship, but also that science might eventually render the Christian doctrine of creation moot altogether. Prescinding from this essay as a whole, with which I find much to agree, I hone in on this particular claim.

Bender writes:

[I]n his [second] letter to Lücke, Schleiermacher relates that the very notion of creation itself may need to be abandoned in light of a new scientific understanding of the world, which was that of a closed deterministic universe. Schleiermacher held that scientific advancement would lead to a comprehensive view of the world, a prognostication that has not come to pass, while the conception of a closed universe that so influenced Schleiermacher had in fact passed away (p. 302).

Kimlyn J. Bender, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

With my layperson's limited familiarity with science, I certainly can get the claim that modern physics, especially, has rendered a Newtonian mechanistic view of the universe problematic. But the passage from Bender raises two questions for me, apropos of Schleiermacher interpretation: 1) Just how entangled is Schleiermacher's account of creation with the presupposition of a closed universe? And 2) how does this notion that science might subsume creation doctrine comport with his own attempt to render a "non-contrastive" account of theology, which (as I had thought) secures theological claims from being degraded by the specific cosmological theories of the day by keeping the realms of faith and empirical science strictly separated? Since I haven't read Schleiermacher's account of creation in a while, I decided to do a little remedial digging into the question.

For starters, I should briefly define what I mean by a "non-contrastive" or "non-competitive" model of the Creator-creature relationship. Bender himself sketches this earlier in the essay, where he summarizes the early work of Kathryn Tanner. The basic claim is that divine action occurs at an ontological register that transcends the realm of finite cause-and-effect; consequently, theological claims, rooted in faith and its divine source, are incommensurable with empirical descriptions of the natural world. (This kind of position has a venerable pedigree in the history of Christian thought. In her book God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny and Empowerment?, Tanner examines the logic of this creation theology, with Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth receiving special attention.)

For years I have understood Schleiermacher's theology of creation to be non-competitive in that sense. In that vein, he writes in the thesis statement of par. 42 of The Christian Faith (trans. H.R. Mackintosh & J.S. Stewart, T&T Clark, 1989, p. 152):

If the conception of Creation is to be further developed, the origin of the world must, indeed, be traced entirely to the divine activity, but not in such a way that this activity is thought of as resembling human activity; and the origin of the world must be represented as the event in time which conditions all change, but not so as to make the divine activity itself a temporal activity.

I don't see how any change in scientific cosmology could falsify or render otiose a doctrine of creation stated in such formal terms, in which divine agency is not identified equivocally with any temporal sequences or agencies. God is not some demiurge, whose mythic and minute ministrations are shoved off the stage by modern Enlightenment. Rather, in an incomprehensible way, God's one eternal decree is fully and perfectly instantiated through the sum total of secondary causes throughout the total history of creation, which culminates in our redemption in Jesus Christ.

Actually, for that matter, I'm not quite convinced that the notion of "closed universe" is that important for what Schleiermacher argues overall about the cosmic nature system; certainly, I need to check into this matter further. To be sure, this may well have been part of the modernist intellectual furniture of the German theologian's milieu -- as, arguably, it would seem to be a common sense notion for many folks today. Still, though I'm not prepared to vet the argument here, I wonder whether Bender might be overplaying here the import of this conceptual framework for Schleiermacher's project. Does a commitment to a closed cosmology really threaten to derail the first great dogmatic theology of the modern era?

At any rate, the second question intrigues me more: Could advances in the natural sciences render the concern of classical creation doctrine obsolete. I'll freely admit to being a little confused about what is being claimed here. Certainly, a number of recent cosmologists and philosophers think that's the case. Recall Bonhoeffer's "God of the gaps," in which divine providence serves as an explanatory, causal hypothesis, ever retreating into obscurity and implausibility as advances in the sciences progressively explain more and more about how the world works. (For more on this, see my recent review of Kevin Vander Schel's book.)

To try to clear matters up for myself, I turn to the specific passage Bender cites in the quote that opens this post.
The text is On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr. Lücke (trans. James Duke & Francis Fiorenza, Scholars Press, 1981, pp. 60-63). This book as a whole is a sort of progress report and assessment of the early edition of Schleiermacher's dogmatics, in which the Berlin theologian is keen to answer critics of his work. He begin the section on the challenge of modern natural sciences thus: "Just think of the present state of the natural sciences as they increasingly develop into a comprehensive knowledge of the world" (p. 60).

(I don't have current access to the German original to parse further what "comprehensive knowledge" might mean.) Schleiermacher predicts -- prophetically -- that the burgeoning modern scientific worldview will initiate profound crisis within Protestant dogmatics. Predictably, reaction is bound to set in, as guardians of orthodoxy seek to wall off church doctrine from the corrosive onslaught of modern scientific thinking. But, at the end of the day, it won't work:

I can only anticipate that we must learn to do without what many are still accustomed to regard as inseparably bound to the essence of Christianity. I am not referring to the six-day creation, but to the concept of creation itself, as it is usually understood, apart from any reference to the Mosaic chronology and despite all those rather precarious rationalizations that interpreters have devised. How long will the concept of creation hold out against the power of a world view constructed from undeniable scientific conclusions that no one can avoid, especially now, when the secrets of the experts concern only the method and detail of the sciences, but their great results will soon be accessible to every enlightened and knowledgeable person throughout the general public (p. 61, emphases mine).

This passage raises many issues I can't pursue here. Suffice it to say, these are the worries prompting Schleiermacher, it seems to me, not to abandon the notion of creation but to redefine it in terms that should be, in principle, immune to scientific critique -- a kind of account, rooted in the faith in the Whence of all creatures, that is not grounded or in any way dependent upon empirical descriptions of cosmic process. To be fair to Bender, he clearly recognizes that Schleiermacher's argument for the cosmos is a unified whole -- a "totality," if I may invoke a little postmodern jargon here -- is embedded in a broader set of theological commitments: Schleiermacher argues, in particular, that the conception (or perhaps "perception" or "intuition"?) of the universe as a unified whole is coterminous with immediate self consciousness. One can "know" oneself only as part of a "world," a nexus of causes and effects. More importantly, this claim for the unity of creation is entailed by piety itself (that is, by the feeling of absolute dependence), with a concomitantly vigorous doctrine of providence as being fully and perfectly expressed in everything that exists and happens (See Bender's concluding "Postscript" on Schleiermacher's Christology, especially pp. 361-364).

Bender's main worry is that Schleiermacher's doctrine of creation rules out the miraculous, and that this move is particularly devastating in a Christology wherein the appearance of the unique Savior can only be relatively rather than absolutely supernatural. To tip my own hand a bit, I share Bender's worries about Schleiermacher's Christology, and agree this challenge must somehow be answered, tricky as that may prove to be. Bender has boldly attempted to do so, whereas I, for the time being, am punting.

Be that as it may, Schleiermacher was hardly the first Christian thinker to employ such a non-competitive strategy to protect the transcendence of God from entanglement with the vicissitudes of creaturely finitude. Arguably, he stands in a venerable line traceable back through Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy, and articulated classically by Thomas Aquinas and even by the second-century apologists Tertullian and Irenaeus, who helped to hash out the orthodox Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as distinctive -- as sui generis. (Were you duly impressed that I plugged two Latin phrases into one sentence?) If that's the case, perhaps Schleiermacher's doctrine of creation -- at least in terms of the traditional Creator-creature distinction -- is, albeit quite radical, not as novel as might appear on first blush.



Matthew Frost said...

This seems to me to be Schleiermacher speaking as an apologete, discussing what will and will not be compelling to future enlightened Modern audiences given current trends. And he's undoubtedly been proven right by history! But I think Bender's citation hadn't gotten to the meat of it the way your digging has.

The question is whether the worldview post-Reformation Protestant orthodoxy had developed around their interpretations of the Genesis 1–3 texts could survive the clash with the worldview coming into existence of the coherent natural world. And the answer is: obviously it can't, unless we're willing to wall ourselves away from science into increasingly militant fundamentalist enclaves.

The ability to restate the doctrine in formalist rather than procedural terms is a concession to that fact—and a necessary one, one I agree with, and one Barth retains even as he completely reorients the formalism of the doctrine away from the equally procedural (but abstract) idea that "in an incomprehensible way, God's one eternal decree is fully and perfectly instantiated through the sum total of secondary causes throughout the total history of creation, which culminates in our redemption in Jesus Christ." Bi-la kayfa (without-how) is not a real change of the doctrine; it's just a surrendering of the details that don't comport with Modern science, allowing Modernist details to be apologetically retrofit into the same formal paradigm.

This move to an abstractive formalism of the doctrine is actually profoundly diagnostically useful, in that we can stop tweaking the set-dressing and really look at the logic.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks, Matt. I was hoping you might stop by. (Catching up with your recent Barth posts is on my to-do list.)

As for this --
"Bi-la kayfa (without-how) is not a real change of the doctrine; it's just a surrendering of the details that don't comport with Modern science, allowing Modernist details to be apologetically retrofit into the same formal paradigm."

Yes, a sundering of some sort seems to be required -- a sundering between the (formal?) essence of the doctrine and the precritical (though I don't like that term so much) biblical realism that typically has gone along with it.

But I wonder: For us today, is it necessary to retrofit the specifics of the contemporary "common creation story" (McFague) to the old doctrine? Isn't another option just to let cosmology and creation doctrine to observe a no-trespass agreement and simply pass as two ships in the night?

Matthew Frost said...

I don't think the retrofit is ever necessary, but I do think it's what's consistently happened.

If I'm going to relegate any two sides of this issue to non-conversation, none of them are going to be the doctrine of creation. As theologians we don't have a choice but to speak of creation, and to do so in ways that speak of what God actually did and does as God for us. Creation, as Barth argues persuasively, provides us with the basis for God's subsequent actions in history—and does so in a way election combines with as paradigm but does not in any way replace. (But you'll get to me saying that in depth eventually, I suppose.)

I've come a long way on this discussion, over lots of territory—most of it really bad—and I don't think there's any valid way to retrofit scientific details into the doctrine of creation. That's just a way of surrendering to a worldview that doesn't need the doctrine of creation; a way of keeping ourselves apologetically relevant, on the cutting edge of culture instead of on its discard heap, in all the ways Schleiermacher is known for.

I've come to agree with Barth that the details of world history and its becomings can't stand anywhere near the head of the doctrine; cosmology of every sort, in every era, points to a different thing that is not properly the doctrine of creation. We have to wipe out the determinism that lets us suggest that God is in charge of things we actually bear primary responsibility for, as far as the state of the creature in history and its arrangements into orders. And that's always where cosmology comes in, trying to link world-becoming to creation in order to surrender our real demiurgic responsibility and get the stamp of theological validity over our competitors.

If we're going to relegate older cosmologies as functions of older worldviews, we must do the same with our own understandings of the world. Which isn't to declare them non-functional as what they are; it's to say that creation isn't about whose worldview is right.

George Plasterer said...

Posed a little different way: If science came up with a theory of origins that a Christian conception of God could NOT have created, would the theologian have a responsibility to respond? - I do not think the link is strong, but it seems to me that the theologian needs to listen to the scientific account of creation and learn, just as much as Barth obviously listened and learned to philosophers in III.2 as he presented the human being as a creature of God. The theologian may need to listen in a similar to science when describing nature as the creation of God. I pose this as a question.

Matthew Frost said...

We can't afford to discard the Biblical realism of the stories. And it isn't in any way "precritical"; the authors of those narratives were profoundly critical of their neighboring worldviews, and of the theological implications of their own. The medium really is the message; it can't legitimately be demythologized the way Modernity has always been inclined to, by stripping out inconvenient details.

Sachkritik that respects the integrity of the story world is the only valid approach I see to extracting usable theological truths. But that doesn't mean we have to tell the same kinds of stories using our worldviews; Sachkritik can't tell us what the theological task is today. That belongs to a critical attentiveness to the development of doctrine and its history of failures.

How we articulate the doctrine today is a different question from how we articulate valid cosmology today, because we've learned things about what combining creation and cosmology leads to.

Matthew Frost said...

George, you're doing it wrong, and beyond that, your hypothetical is absurd. Since we have never had evidence of how God created the universe, every story we have is a product of combining belief in God with the best cosmology available.

Of course the theologian needs to listen to the scientific account of how the world works. But that's not an account of creation. At all. It's an account of how the world works, and how it came to be in this state today through a process of working the way it works. No theology is required for cosmology, not even for one that involves detailed developmental history.

You should listen to the best of scientific descriptions of how the world actually appears to work, and how it seems to have gotten to this point, because it's the best data we have to speak about that process. But it's not in competition with the doctrine of creation. It's only in competition with other narrative worldviews about how the world works and how it developed.

Matthew Frost said...

Which is to say: there is no way for cosmology to develop a theologically inaccessible worldview, except by pitching itself in the explicit terms of different, non-Christian theologies. At which point we're in an interreligious dialogue, not a doctrinal discussion or a conversation with scientists about how the world works.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Hi George. For my part, I would say the theologian doesn't have any responsibility qua theologian to respond to a scientific theory of origins. In my own case, I can affirm unequivocally that I have no qualifications to evaluate a scientific cosmology or evolutionary theory. In that I'm a human being -- to the extent that I *am* a human being and not just a theologian (and sadly, the two categories are not always coterminous), all the important aspects of culture and the sciences impact me too and deserve whatever attention I'm capable of rendering them. A secondary question -- implied, I think, by your main one is whether a scientific theory might make a claim about what it means to be human that contradicts some key aspects of a theological anthropology -- Let's say I have a theological interest in affirming free will in some sense as constitutive of human existence, whereas someone who holds to some sort of deterministic materialism -- and claims to base it on empirical evidence -- denies free will exists. Already, it seems to me, the determinist has rendered a judgment that is neither empirically verifiable or falsifiable. She has made a philosophical claim, and not a strictly scientific one. But then do I as a theologian have to attend to that counter-claim? Perhaps I should. But my move -- and I think this is what Barth and Schleiermacher and many others do -- is to say that freedom, as a theologically determined concept, is incommensurable with such a claim -- that we are talking about something different, that we're using the term "freedom" differently. There is a very deep divide nowadays over this question. I've basically signed off (for now at least) on an understanding of theology that has signed a non-compete treaty with these other human discourses. I realize why many, who seek a unity of human knowledge, would find this unsatisfying. But I'd say that it's important to speak the theological claim within its own integrity -- assuming that it's true (which I do).

Matthew Frost said...

Your hypothetical only make sense if we have only one (or only a narrow valid range of, or even any) story that actually tells us how God created the universe in details we must rely on. Which is to say that your question risks reducing Christianity to fundamentalism. Of course fundamentalists for whom their particular interpretation of Genesis is the last word on creation are going to have problems with science. But that's not theology's fault, or Christianity's fault. It's fundamentalism's fault.

Matthew Frost said...

Well said, Scott.

Erin said...

What a curious excerpt. He seems occupied by the imagined reaction of polite society and I read into it an existential fear. Appreciate the discussion, too, thanks!