Christ, the cosmos and critical realism

Conference paper


Lawson, F. 2019. Christ, the cosmos and critical realism.
AuthorsLawson, F.
TypeConference paper
Description

If one accepts the premise that both science and theology are engaging with a reality that can be referred to, but which is beyond the range of a literal description, then science and theology can be brought in to meaningful dialogue through a framework of critical realism. This paper examines the implications of scientific perspectives on the nature of the world for our concept of the incarnate Son of God. The critical realism of Polkinghorne and Peacocke, set out in their Gifford Lectures, invites us to consider a world that is more holistic than the dualistic picture adopted in many Christological discussions. It can be argued that the “paradox” narrative of the incarnation is the result of a misperception of the nature of reality forcing a choice between the adoption of a) an “enchanted” Cartesian ontology or b) acceptance of a “scientific” reductionist ontology. The ontological and theological problems associated with either view have led to the conflation of paradox with mystery. This paper suggests the adoption of a holistic ontology suggested by some interpretations of quantum theory open science and theology to the opportunity of a re-imagined dialogue that seeks to “answer questions about the existence, nature and interrelation of different kinds of entities” (Gohner and Schrenk, 2019) and where at the very least theology is consonant with science.

The task of Christian theology is to not only reconcile our understanding of God with our experience of the world, but also with the historical and theological person of Christ and His relationship with God. We can no less come to study God without entering through our understanding of God as revealed through Christ than we can come to study Christ without bringing to bear our pre-existing understanding of the nature of God as Father, and Trinity. Because of this it can be argued ‘Christian doctrine is always in the making, in the process of formation’ (Wiles, 2011, p. 1). To claim that doctrine is in a process of continual change requires the Christian theologian to critically examine and develop their understanding of the central truths of our doctrines.

If one starts with God, ‘to begin with the being of God and then to consider his becoming man’ (Wiles, 2011, p. 44) one is able to recognise the interrelation within the Trinity, and between a Trinitarian God and creation. This shifts Christology to something more than a historical study. Firstly, we must consider how we express our knowledge of the person and substance of Christ in language that is accessible through our contemporary epistemology. Secondly, we must develop a critical understanding of the substance of our belief, to challenge the underlying theological and ontological assumptions that frame and in some instances constrain our understanding of God and Christ. By bringing in to focus the “division” between the nature or person of Christ (his being) and the works and action of Christ in the world (his doing) we highlight two very different methods of Christological enquiry: ‘Functional Christology’ that focuses on the actions of Christ past and present and ‘Ontological Christology’ that focuses on the substance and being of Christ. Whilst it is possible to argue that there has historically been a focus on understanding Christianity in ‘primarily practical terms’ (Macquarrie, 1990, p. 7) there is an increasing move to acknowledge that our understanding of Christs’ being is deeply bound up in our metaphysical and ontological understanding of the nature of the world.

This leads to the question of the role of scientific ontology in our theological discussion. John W Cooper (2000) presents a clear, albeit brief, account of the development of a scientific-informed Christology. ‘Reversing the historic order of revelation and reason, [naturalist theologians] engaged in biblical interpretation and theological construction within the framework of the philosophy and science that developed after Galileo and Newton.’(Cooper, 2000, p. 37) Adoption of a theistic naturalism in relation to understanding the body and soul has arisen from attempts to synthesize theological and scientific worldviews. Non-dualistic alternatives (such as emergentism and psychophysical monism) have been developed in order to explain to defend against the rise of a reductionist materialist (scientistic) stance and allow for genuine human agency and spirituality.

Whilst the historic dualistic position, arguably, supports in understanding persons as having free will & spiritual natures, it gives rise to issues in relation to causality, interaction and understanding the self as a unified individual. Other, more reductionist models such as theistic naturalism and monistic anthropology are not mainstream, however supporters argue that they will gain increasing support as the dualist position appears to become ever more detached from the scientific understanding of reality: ‘They wish to show that the Christian faith is not tied to an outdated philosophy and science’ (Cooper, 2000, p. 40). Without an immaterial soul under theistic naturalism, it is only the resurrection (if it indeed happened), that separates Christ’s divine and human natures. Whereas the monistic position offers an internally inconsistent understanding of the nature(s) of Christ and appears to bring into question an orthodox interpretation of Chalcedon. The rise therefore of scientific naturalism can also be understood as a move away from the “unscientific” concept of substance dualism. In the years since Descartes and with the (apparently) increasing materialistic understanding of the nature of the world; Christology, and the ability of an immaterial divine person to be causally and meaningfully engaged with the “physical” world, has led to theology appearing to be evermore out of step with our “disenchanted” understanding of the world. However, an increasing number of scholars are questioning such strictly materialist stances to protect an orthodox understanding of Chalcedon.

The challenge of defending an orthodox interpretation of Chalcedon means that Christian theology therefore, must engage in a meaningful way with questions of metaphysics and ontology and as such ensure that it does not limit itself to simply dealing ‘only or even primarily with manifestations and functions’ (Woodfin, 1972, p. 137). If it fails to engage with questions of ontology it also fails to ensure that that it is tackling the correspondence between our expression (of faith or reality) and reality itself. Thus the engagement of theology with scientific ontology becomes of central importance in ensuring that ‘metaphysical issues and the believer’s conviction regarding the nature of divine reality are at least analogically comparable’ (Woodfin, 1972, p. 138) or, for Torrance, to even pose questions as without ontological congruence between reality and experience our discourse is meaningless.

KeywordsScience and religion; Metaphysics; Scientific ontology; Chalcedon
Year2019
ConferenceScience, Philosophy, Theology - Dialogue Areas & Perspectives (International Interdisciplinary Conference)
Related URLhttps://sites.google.com/view/sc-ph-th-conference/
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Web address (URL) of conference proceedingshttps://sites.google.com/view/sc-ph-th-conference/program-szczeg%C3%B3%C5%82owy-conference-schedule?authuser=0
References

Cooper, J.W., 2000. Body, soul, and life everlasting: biblical anthropology and the monism-dualism debate. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Goetz, S., 2015. Substance Dualism, in: Farris, J.R., Taliaferro, C. (Eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology. Ashgate, Farnham Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT, pp. 125–137.
Gohner, J., F., Schrenk, M., 2019. Metaphysics of Science. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (ISSN 2161-0002).
Macquarrie, J., 1990. Jesus Christ in modern thought. SCM Press ; Trinity Press International, London : Philadelphia.
Peacocke, A.R., 1993. Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming - Natural, Divine and Human, 2nd Revised edition edition. ed. SCM Press, London.
Polkinghorne, J.C., 1994. The faith of a physicist.
Wiles, M., 2011. The Remaking of Christian Doctrine, New edition edition. ed. SCM Press.
Woodfin, Y., 1972. Ontological Thresholds and Christological Method. Religious Studies 8, 137–146.

Additional information

The conference paper was redeveloped following the conference to form the basis of (2020 - Why Metaphysics Matters for the Science-Theology Debate – an Incarnational Case Study, in Studia Philosophiae Christinae, vol 56 No3, (pp 125-155)

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Deposited18 Jul 2022
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