Patristic Theology and Modern Science Pt 7

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As I navigate through this topic of bridging and forging the relationship between science and theology, I have the enormous privilege of talking over some of my findings in this endeavour with a friend who has a doctorate in the field of physics, Dr Ian Fuss.  I am not a physicist and neither am I a scientist but the nature of science I find very awe inspiring and invigorating.  My interest was sparked by a year in chemistry at Flinders University when I was in the school of medicine.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and achieved a high overall grade.  I was astonished at the beautiful order presented in the periodic table and at the same time a realisation of creation out of nothing.  A short time after this I started reading the Ground and Grammar lectures by T F Torrance which helped me see all this beauty through the eyes of Christ.  I started to see the credibility of the framework of thought of the church fathers coming through in the scientific field.

It was my experience at university in chemistry, biology and psychology that was the catalyst for my decision to switch to a Bachelor of Ministry at Tabor College.  This period at Flinders University was invaluable to me.  I started to see the pattern emerging between the School of Humanities and the School of Science.  On the one hand, the mathematics of chemistry worked beautifully with establishing what was occurring in chemical processes.  In one practical we had to create a banana flavouring from a petrochemical.  We had to calculate the outcome through equations with the prediction of how much flavouring there should be after the strict process we had undertaken.  Sure enough, after the chemical process, the results were fairly close.  The mathematics matched the outcome of the process taking into consideration some room for error on my part.  There was a steady verifiable process of investigation all the way through.  On the other hand, I found the mythological aspect of the biology unit so very frustrating especially in the area of the theory of evolution.  There was an arrogant claim of, Evolution is fact and everyone believes it, without any verifiable evidence to back up the claim.  Therefore, an unverifiable method of interpreting the world around us is employed turning science into a farce.  This is not to say I take the creation story literally.  We must not fall into a mechanistic, logical reasoning to interpret the Genesis event.  Rather than when and how, this story points to Who and why and I would direct peoples’ attention to Eph 1.

Now psychology surprised me.  I had been working in Child Protection for a couple of years by then and a new way of understanding human behaviour was beginning to emerge within this field.  We are required to attend trainings to better understand the complex behaviours of children placed into care.  These trainings were undertaken by some of the leading psychologists in Australia and the world.  I also had the privilege of having what was said to us in our training supported by what was taught in my psychology units.  When we started taking on the care of children, there was a monkey see monkey do approach to helping them.  It was thought that the child placed into care who were taken from situations of abuse and neglect would learn to modify their behaviours largely through imitating the behaviours of a so called normal loving family.  However, in reality, this was failing at every level.  Especially with the rise in synthetic drug abuse, more and more children were coming into care from serious cases of abuse and neglect.  What surprised me even more was the language being employed in psychology was very similar to the language in trinitarian theology. What I initially expected at the beginning of the course was a whole lot of airy fairy mumbo jumbo turned out to be a similar experience as my science units.  Words like connection, assurance, attunement, intuition and bonds were used to showing the deeper complex understanding of human behaviour was now beginning to emerge with a strong foundation in evidence even at a physiological level.

By the end of the first decade of this century, there was now a revolution in understanding the ground of human behaviour.  Attachment theories over the last forty or fifty years were now being brought together and new ideas on how to first understand the whys of human behaviours and then a better approach into addressing those who had problems as a result.  Fortunately for me, Bruce Wauchope attended one of the seminars run by Circle of Security and I was one of the first people in Adelaide to hear first hand the remarkable new approach to understanding what we were faced with in Child Protection.  Bruce had the opportunity to touch base with one of the founders of Circle of Security and compared notes finding there was much common ground between his series on the Gospel and Mental Health and the ideology of this organisation.  My peers were quite surprised when I started talking about and grasping clearly what they were only starting to come to terms with.  In addition to this, the conclusions were able to be verified in a meaningful way and the practical applications were almost immediate.  They did not answer all the questions as there is still much about human behaviour that is yet to be discovered.  Nevertheless, it was step in the right direction as far as addressing complex behaviours as we have encountered with children brought into care was concerned.

The empirical reality I am talking about is not the same as empirical science.  What we mean by empirical reality is something that is beyond us (but not out of our grasp).  It is embedded in the object even before we are aware of it and cannot be negotiated into a different sort of truth. When we look at the universe in an interrelational and interdependent way with how objects relate to each other then a way of knowing and a way of seeing is more faithful to what is observed.  An object has an inherent truth in it and it is incumbent upon those who seek to draw out its truth to do so with integrity and humility so that an honest interpretation of it is conveyed to those around them.  There is a deep desire to know the nature of an object and use relevant probing questions.  If answers cannot be found, then judgment is suspended with the hope that somebody in future may be able to answer those questions.  What we must resist is to try and use explanations outside to explain what is happening inside in our object of study.

My point in all this is sound scientific investigative research will reflect to the best of their ability the reality that is going on in the world around us so far We cannot change the facts clearly represented in reality to suit our own agendas.  Theories can be far fetched and it is up to the peers of the one making claims to make sure their claims do not misrepresent the empirical reality.  It is the same in theology.  Whatever claims we make regarding God revealed as the Man Jesus Christ must not misrepresent the implications of this event.  We resource the ancient church who we believe is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets to guide us and not pull us off this path.  Theories of what might have happened in our human history should not have any bearing on the humanity now disclosed to us in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  He portrays to us the way things ought to be.

With Jesus Christ as the Object and Subject of all the ways and works of God we have clear guidelines about where His truth lies.  This is not ‘Barthian’ (Karl Barth) or ‘Torrancian’ (T F Torrance) but an endeavour as both Karl Barth and T F Torrance have done to remian faithful to the ancient church.  What we find as others have taken their cue from these giants and have explored this ancient period for themselves they start to see what Barth and Torrance are on about.

Let’s use Mimetic Theory as somewhat of a case study.

  1. Imitation behaviour has been observed by René Girard.
  2. Somewhere in our evolutionary past our ancient ancestors made a trade off in their brains.  They lost some brain space for instinct and traded it off for imitation.
  3. He put forward the idea of imitation of desire as the root of the cause of tension between people.
  4. In a group situation this tension might escalate to the point that it causes a victim to be selected and set upon.
  5. This person becomes the scapegoat upon which the tension is vented causing psychological damage to that person or even death.
  6. Once the anger is vented, groups will become re-united and peace will be restored.
  7. René notices this occurring in ancient mythology and rituals.
  8. He believes that it is possible someone could have noticed this phenomenon occurring and comes up with the idea of undertaking a ritual sacrifice within a society to release tension, restore order and maintain social cohesion.
  9. This person is elevated to a position of power and becomes the prototype for religion.
  10. Someone suggests he read the Bible and he finds a similar pattern of sacrifice/scapegoat.
  11. Therefore, one might conclude that it was not God (Yahweh, Jesus Christ) who instituted the Old Testament practice of sacrifice.  This could have been a natural development of what was occurring already and became inserted into Old Testament Canon.

These are my concerns:

  1. I am not here to say Mimetic theory is right or wrong.  I believe what René Girard is proposing are possibilities.  The question is can these possibilities be tested?
  2. Now the nature of science, even in the field of anthropology, is to make honest observations of the data in accordance with what the object discloses.  If we can only go so far as to consider Girard’s theory of social cohesion as a possible explanation that might have occurred in our human history and it cannot be widely and meaningfully verified in the field of mainstream anthropology, do go on as if it is a valid truth?
  3. How can we verify this trade off for brain space from instinct to imitation?  The premise does not give us viable answers.  It only contains many more questions with much more answers dependant on accepting the premise.
  4. It is also dependent on accepting another premise of evolution.
  5. What we run the risk of here is entering into and articulating a something which is still only a controversial theory.
  6. This theory is not widely accepted as some are led to believe and the jury is still out.
  7. Therefore we run the risk of entertaining what might be a myth and allowing it to influence the nature and character of Jesus Christ.  We have to take care that we do not introduce something outside of the gospel to become the interpretive tool for Scripture.

Now for what it is worth, this is my opinion.  The New Covenant is central to the discipline of the Christian to rely on the Spirit of Christ in them.  Let’s refer to it once more. As I have already discussed its significance in Pt 5 of these series, I want to refer to verse 8:11;

None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. 

Whatever we are told about the gospel and how we live our Christian life is  to be understood intuitively within in accordance with the nature and character of the self-revelation of Jesus Christ as testified in Scripture.  If we are somewhat sceptical on a matter, we are totally free to suspend judgment and we should be granted the freedom and time to work through any issue.  I have no right as a minister to tell anyone what they should and should not know but to only try and strengthen them in the knowledge of Jesus Christ whose heart reflects the heart of the Father.  I try to sing the same tune the Spirit of Christ is singing within those around me.

When it comes to assessing any so called truth in any of the disciplines of science, I believe the same principle follows suit.  If I may, I will rephrase the above clause that I believe is relevant to science.

None of them shall teach his neighbour and no one his brother the nature of reality because they will all see reality for themselves from the least of them to the greatest.

If some theory, hypothesis or premise comes from outside of the object and is used as a means to interpret its truth, if it properly reflects the truth, then it will ring true (intuitively) with all who look at the object.  If it has to be mediated through a person’s view of the object then we may become imprisoned by their view, especially if they might be wrong.  Now if the song of the theory is out of sync with the object, then we are free to suspend judgment.  This is what happened when James Clerk Maxwell proposed his theory of the Electromagnetic Field.  What was being said about electricity, magnetism and light did not ring true with what he observed.  What was stated by scientists of the time did not make sense with the nature of the objects at hand.  Maxwell turned to the objects and allowed them to speak for themselves.  In time, others who observed these objects in the same way Maxwell did found that what he was saying was in sync with what they observed.

Now we have a means of testing all things that come across our path and do not have to feel that fields of science outside of theology have a superior truth.  At the same time, we do not want to completely throw out all ideas.  We show due respect to René Girard and suspend judgment until such time a better explanation is provided.  Explanations must be exterior to the current unverifiable premise.  It is the same with the gospel.  We begin with Jesus Christ and conclude with Jesus Christ and all things are to be verified according to His witness.

to be continued . . . .