Bender on Schleiermacher: Will Science Trump Creation Doctrine?
[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.
(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.