Can we see beyond the faith and science impasse?

James K. A. Smith has an interesting article in Christianity Today, “What Galileo’s Telescope Can’t See.” Read it here. Our present historical moment is marked by significant turbulence around the issue of creation/origins (specifically), and the relationship of science and faith (generally).

In the midst of what Charles Taylor refers to as “cross-pressures” we can be tempted toward either/or responses that can quickly lose any sense of nuance or deliberation.

One such response is conjuring the image of Galileo with all the popular baggage this entails. Smith argues that we do well to avoid applying the Galileo analogy to our current moment claiming that it is detrimental to productive inquiry.

Ours, we are told, is a “Galilean” moment: a critical time in history when new findings in the natural sciences threaten to topple fundamental Christian beliefs, just as Galileo’s proposed heliocentrism rocked the ecclesiastical establishment of his day. This parallel is usually invoked in the context of genetic, evolutionary, and archaeological evidence about human origins that challenges traditional Christian understandings.

Smith rightly points out that using this analogy loads the discussion against faith in the same way as using the analogy of “crusader” loads the discussion of American foreign policy. To some degree this technique is used both by those who decry creation science as well as those who reject anything other than a literal six-day creation as consistent with the Genesis account(s). One is either a prophet/martyr for declaring the truth of the progressive development of organisms over time or for proclaiming God as the sole actor who brought creation into being.

Smith, however, levels his sharpest remarks at those who doff their hat to science. This isn’t surprising given that those of us in and around the academy are quite familiar with natural science’s ascendancy to the throne once occupied by theology as “Queen of the Sciences.”

He continues:

Just as Galileo’s telescope taught us to give up on what wrongly seemed “essential” to the faith [the heliocentric universe], so today’s fossil record and genetic evidences press us to give up clinging to a historical couple or a historical Fall. Apart from any assessment of the evidence or consideration of alternatives, the analogy does its own persuasive work. Do you really want to be the Cardinal Bellarmine of the future? Does anyone really want to be that guy—the one who committed himself to an “orthodoxy” that not a single Christian would later believe?

Clearly, no one wants to be that guy. Beyond the obvious charge of intellectual laziness (“I believe because I do not wish to seem a rube”), Smith also points out that central problem of the Galileo analogy is how it displaces theology and enthrones science as the ultimate describer of reality.

…it treats theology as a kind of bias–an inherently conservative take on the world that has to face up to the cold, hard realities disclosed by the natural sciences and historical research.

In other words, theology needs to be emboldened to step beyond it’s “false humility” (in the words of John Milbank) and reclaim it’s right to purvey true knowledge.It ought to avoid perennial deference to the social and natural sciences.

Is there a way to move beyond this impasse? Smith says yes, and the way forward is in a return to the methodology of the ancient church. The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) consensus provides us one of the earliest windows on the church interacting with science in making theological sense of how Jesus could simultaneously be fully human and fully God.

Early Christians mined the mysteries of the faith to grapple with the challenge of the day rather than whittling down what’s scandalous to fit the expectations of the day. Guided by the Chalcedonian consensus, church leaders did not have to settle for a merely defensive or conciliatory posture. They were not reduced to looking for nooks and crannies in the reigning scientific paradigms that left room to make religious claims. Instead, their central conviction of the lordship of Christ over all creation gave them a courage and confidence to theorize imaginatively and creatively. They didn’t look for ways to blunt or downplay the particularities of the gospel. Animated by the conviction that all things hold together in Christ, early Christian theologians forged new models and paradigms which we now receive as magisterial statements of the faith—the heart and soul of the “Great Tradition.”

In order to the imaginative and constructive work of faithfully engaging in theological reflection that helps make sense of those tentative revelations we receive from science, the Christian scholar needs to be grounded in worship.

…The Christian intellectual tradition is uniquely “carried” in the practices of Christian liturgy, worship, and prayer. It is in the prayers and worship of the church that we are immersed in the Word and our imaginations are located in God’s story. It is in worship that we are constantly invited to inhabit the conviction that all things hold together in Christ. Intentional liturgical formation must be the foundation for rigorous, imaginative, and faithful Christian scholarship.

I love that paragraph. It reminds us that worship is more than simply the experience of God in the present moment. Of course, it is supremely the encounter of a company of people with their God through song, Word, and sacrament. However, worship has a custodial element–it carries, preserves, and communicates theology to the congregation (at a subliminal level). That theology can, of course, be good or bad. Worship can be many things, but what it cannot be is a-theological. And the extent that we forget this we’re in danger of creating worship experiences that are not healthy.

What it also reminds us is that our first and chief faculty is not reason and rationality, it is the imagination. That’s not to say that rationality is unimportant, but it to say that the imaginative connects with us in a different and (perhaps) deeper way–ask an artist.

As we move further into postmodern culture, the church will need to return to it’s ancient past to communicate the timeless Gospel of the Kingdom to a new generation who have never encountered it as a story that counteracts the our culture’s story of individualism, consumerism, and nihilism. In this sense, we can answer the question posed in the title by stating: “theology stands beyond the faith and science impasse.”

This is a profound opportunity!


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