Top critical review
18 people found this helpful
Theology shaped by science
on January 16, 2012
Readers who have appreciated John Haught's earlier book God and the New Atheism may be a bit disappointed by this one. Haught here moves beyond an analysis of the intellectual sloppiness of the Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris phenomenon to a discussion of the way theology needs to be reinterpreted in the light of what he understands to be the established truth of evolutionary origins. While the evidence that evolution is a primary mechanism of creation is now incontrovertible (see Denis Alexander's Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? for an accessible and scientifically robust demonstration of this from a committed Christian), this for Vaught seems to have become a dominant new paradigm from which everything else has to be interpreted.
Vaught approvingly summarizes Teilhard de Chardin's view that "the intellectual context for any believable theology today is shaped primarily by science, and especially its new story of an unfinished universe. So what is needed theologically is a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of Christian teaching about God, Christ, creation, incarnation, redemption, and eschatology in keeping with Darwin's unveiling of life's long evolution and contemporary cosmology's disclosure of the ongoing expansion of the heavens." (p.142)
The key issue is whether in a context "shaped primarily by science" theology should also be shaped primarily by science. It is true that theology must live in the 21st century and not the 19th, or the 16th, or the 3rd century. It is also absolutely correct that if it is true, Christian theology will not find any challenge, but rather support and stimulus from anything that material science can reveal. If alongside the daily newspaper and popular culture Christian thinkers and preachers can't also refer when necessary to discoveries in cosmology and genetics; if we are not reading and thinking in these areas as part of our intelligent engagement with the real world of knowledge in which we live, then we are failing in our task. But if it is truly theology it surely must be shaped, not by science, but by what God has revealed of himself through the ages of his involvement with human beings. That is, the living word of God encountered through scripture must be the starting place. We don't have a God about whom we have to speculate, a God whom we have to re-envisage or re-cast in the light of a new revelation (even supposing that material science could provide such revelation). We have a self-revealing God, not one whom we have to discover ourselves, or to re-conceptualize in the light of new data.
It seems to me that, while not necessarily coming from a non-orthodox starting place, Haught continually walks along the edge of that latter possibility. The content of "God" as Haught uses the title does not seem to be driven by revelation but by scientific discovery (seen as a set of established conclusions, rather than as a still-breaking wave). This leads to a kind of free-floating speculation about how we might think about God. Haught's many thoughtful discussions still at bottom have this air of speculation: as if the ideas were floating six inches above a ground so taken for granted that it seems not even to exist. In particular, the past seems in Haught's thought to have been almost entirely relinquished to evolutionary processes. While the terms creator and creation are used, they occur as ciphers rather than as having real content. The much more dominant sense is of a self-creating universe, come to awareness in human beings, and being called in its growth and development into a future grounded in God. Haught correctly eschews a view of God that sees him primarily located in the past. But instead of the eternal God, Haught's God appears to be located exclusively in the future: the universe is growing on into God, and it is that future-located God who meets and calls to us in the present.
One result of the ungrounded nature of the discussion is that Haught's suggestions for reconfiguring theology often seem much less tangible than the `solid' scientific foundation that has been assumed as the central reference point. Despite the often tellingly acute observations about the inadequacy of a purely materialist viewpoint, the theological suggestions that are made seldom feel any more tangible or authoritative. The impression one gets is of a philosophically interesting but not demonstrably necessary or compelling alternative narrative. Christian concepts are used vaguely, and in numerous places Haught swings into what feels more like mystical rhetoric than hard argument. As one example it is hard to see what actual meaning there is in statements like `The Bible gives us such a worldview, one in which ultimate reality--in other words, God--arrives from out of the future to give new life to the creation and fresh hope to human history." (p.135) My suspicion is that any scientist worth their salt (and the book is a conscious invitation to dialogue) would consider this nothing but mystical claptrap. I feel uncomfortably sympathetic to such a judgement.
With regard to this particular example, one is reminded of the earnestly bizarre theories of the physicist Frank J Tipler in his The Physics of Immortality, who (without giving any indication that he has read Teilhard de Chardin) sees `God' as the future cosmos-filling noosphere reaching back in time to cherish and preserve every aspect of its progress to divinity--including individual human beings (hence the title). While Haught doesn't go nearly this far, it is hard to see what would decisively distinguish his Christian point of view from this charmingly dotty secular one. Teilhard, by the way, along with Whithead, Hartshorne and Tillich, is one of Haught's major influences, and is quoted many times. (For the record I myself think Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man to be a truly splendid book--up to the point where towards the end he slips across, in my reading of him, into a kind of process pantheism.)
I'm aware that these are pretty robust criticisms. And yet I still think the book has interest and value. It is at least a real attempt to integrate what we know about evolutionary mechanisms into serious Christian theological thought about creation and providence --even if the result makes it appear as if the balance of authority and therefore the need for integration runs the other way. The underlying discussion of the lack of depth or explanatory power in materialist explanations is often excellent, and there are fresh and thought-provoking observations on almost every page. As a short, thoughtful and often wise discussion it is definitely worth your time, even if many Christian readers will want to move on fairly quickly to something more solidly grounded.