Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine May – June 2012

From Physics to Theology

Comments on a lecture by Jurgen Moltmann, 14 Feb 2012, Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. By Dr Gregory Farrelly.

Jurgen Moltmann is a Protestant theologian of international stature and great personal integrity. He recently lectured at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, on the title "From Physics to Theology". The lecture was given in two halves, the first describing his personal journey following his captivity as a prisoner of war in Scotland, the second explicitly addressing the title of the talk.

He explained that having been interested in mathematics and physics as a young man, and with a secular upbringing, he gradually felt the attraction of Christianity. During the latter years of his interment he devoured theology books and pondered the problem of suffering and evil. The question of God was of critical importance to him, but scientific truth was also a key concern, something that has remained with him since then.

The Protestant theologian Karl Barth was a huge influence on him, as he has been on so many Protestant and Catholic theologians of the 20th century, particularly Hans-Urs von Balthasar. Moltmann, however, seeks a greater link with historical reality than that present in Barth's thought. Nevertheless, the Hegelian background of Moltmann's philosophical thought is often evident.

In the lecture he quotes Plato's "Truth is beautiful" as a leitmotiv, referring often to the beauty of truth and the "aesthetic dimension" of Christian theology and its parallel in modern physics. Like Balthasar's theological aesthetics, albeit from a Protestant perspective, he seeks to make the Christian thinker more aware of the beauty of God in Himself and in his creation.

Moltmann points out that goodness, truth and beauty were always held to be unified, coexistent properties, but that after the separation of science and theology in the 17th century this unity was broken, although he believes that beauty and truth still form a unity in modern scientific thought. He mentions the use by physicists of the geometrical symmetries of nature to inform their understanding and reminds his audience that the separation of science and theology damages both.

Moltmann's thoughts on the dangers of using the power of scientific knowledge without pondering beauty - and in particular on the dangers of the "economisation" of science in this century, in which scientific thought may only be valued generally in terms of its economic power - would be shared by many researchers in the UK. However, what is absent is a metaphysics that can enter into non-poetic dialogue with physics, in other words a common ground of rational thought in which the existence of God is not primarily part of some theological aesthetics, but is seen to provide a necessary context to the very dynamic of science itself. As I watched the lecture, I wondered how many in the audience were atheist scientists. If there were any, what would Moltmann's thinking have had to offer them?I fear that they would have dismissed such theological thoughts as merely poetic, having nothing to do with reality.

In the opinion of this writer Moltmann is correct to insist on the importance of a theological perspective when considering science, and on the need to ponder the intrinsic unity and beauty of all of creation, but it is surely the lack of a coherent metaphysics of science that has led to the increasing gap between modern scientific thought and Christian theology. The rejection of metaphysics by most modern philosophers and theologians has seen the gap filled by influential scientists, often with little philosophical training but with the credibility that their status as scientists confers on them. This is in sharp contrast to the modern "lay" perception of theology (and philosophy).

The link made in Edward Holloway's synthesis of science and theology, involving the co-relativity of all material being in a metaphysical system that is faithful both to modern scientific thought and to orthodox Christian theology, gives a more solid basis on which to develop a dialogue with science. Then, and only then, may one more fully appreciate and develop a theological aesthetics, as Moltmann seeks to do, that sees beauty and truth in both scientific and theological thought.

The lecture can be viewed by going to faraday and following the link. The audio (and flash video) are of poor quality as the recording was made from within the audience, whose coughing can be heard throughout.

The Soul and Evolution?

Comments on an article by Fr Jack Mahoney SJ. By Fr Hugh MacKenzie.

In January, The Tablet carried an article by Jack Mahoney SJ entitled "Humanity's Destiny". Under the banner ''Towards A Theology of Evolution" it summarised the views expounded in his recent book "Christianity in Evolution: an explanation". Fr Mahoney is extremely frank in expressing his view that the doctrine of Original Sin through the primordial fall of our first parents should simply be ditched, and that the core Christian view of Redemption through the atoning Sacrifice of Christ should be modified beyond traditional recognition.

Other Catholic teachings, such as the special creation of the human soul and many moral and sacramental dogmas, should also be abandoned or changed, in his opinion. He said that he is expecting objections on these points from some quarters, but feels that these are the full implications for traditional Christian teaching of accepting evolution. Needless to say, we beg to differ!

What is most noticeable about Mahoney's arguments is his partial understanding of key traditional doctrines and his apparent ignorance of the richness of tradition. He says that the Christian view of bodily death is that it is entirely due to the disobedience of Adam and Eve, whereas we now know that death is a key driver of environmental adaptation in evolving life. He then reduces Jesus' death and resurrection to "a major evolutionary step [note the indefinite article] in the moral achievement of humanity"... "saving his fellow humans from extinction, their evolutionary fate, to share in the life of the Trinity".

We would say that Man was always created for the vision of God in Union with the Blessed Trinity. But we also know that the flesh is of itself a principle of mortality, subject to dissolution because it is built up from a complex of causal events in a temporal series. The individual physical organism in evolution is not an absolute value and its death makes possible the onward progress of life on earth. But Man is that goal. In us, matter is brought into direct synthesis with spiritual mind from ontological (and indeed biological) necessity. So in Man matter is raised into the supernatural realm of relationship with God through the Word made flesh. In Man, therefore, matter is subsumed and transformed into a more perfect state by direct union with the Godhead and the indwelling of theHoly Spirit. This is the foundation of the Incarnation and the Eucharist.

This means that Man only makes sense as a creature because God has destined us unto Himself through the gift of the Incarnation. It is this destiny and this environmental harmony that is lost by sin in the first generation, damaging the whole organically and spiritually interconnected Body of Humanity. Worse than just the threat of "extinction", this threatens the eternal frustration of human nature - spiritual as well as physical death. However, through the mercy of God and to the praise of his glorious grace, the mystery of his purpose in Christ is upheld by the Son, who takes upon Himself the burden of healing and reintegrating our broken nature and vindicating the glory of God in creation. This is the foundation of his redeeming Sacrifice: not "an evolutionary step" for mankind,but the plenary self-giving of God to his creatures, to the utmost of both human and Divine love.

This perspective is not really new. In fact it can be found in all these essential outlines in the Adversus Haereses of St Iranaeus, written in the second century AD. However, we can readily update it with the language and insights derived from modern science without compromising the Catholic and Apostolic faith.

When Mahoney speaks of the Atonement, he does so entirely in juridical and punitive terms, "which leaves no room for mercy on the part of God, except once the divine honour has been satisfied", so he then speaks of "a sense of theological relief to be released from having to subscribe to such doctrines and to accept the evolutionary alternatives". The recent editorial in Faith on that very subject would have perhaps given him the fuller Catholic vision, which places the Atonement within the perspective of the absolute Primacy of Christ in creation and the solidarity and identity of humanity in his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

So many issues that Mahoney raises have already been answered by Edward Holloway in his Catholicism: a New Synthesis and other writings published by Faith movement. Although what he writes is open and unapologetic "heresy", at least Jack Mahoney has highlighted the fact that the question of science and religion is not some purely academic issue revolving around a few specialised philosophical and theological discussions. The whole edifice of Christianity as traditionally understood is at stake over this question. Those who reject physical evolution out of hand understand this, but unfortunately their position effectively rejects the whole understanding of the physical cosmos uncovered by modern science.

Others, like Mahoney, also understand, and more or less explicitly reject, traditional teaching and reinterpret Christianity altogether. Yet this is a false choice and a false contradiction. We do not need to reject or twist defined doctrines in order to present our faith credibly in this new age of discovery, neither do we need to distance ourselves from the scientific consensus about the natural world. A valid synthesis of comprehension which is both fully orthodox and scientifically credible is not only possible but urgently, desperately, needed for the re-evangelisation of the world.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2012