Friday, November 11, 2005

Signals of transcendence

Connexions reviews Allistar Mcgrath's book The Twilight of Atheism and finds plenty of things to say:
“There has always been a sense in which the natural sciences are opposed to authoritarianism of any kind,” nevertheless “Most historians regard religion as having a generally benign and constructive relationship with the natural sciences . . . As leading historians of science regularly point out, the interaction of science and religion is determined primarily by historical circumstances and only secondarily by their respective subject matters” (p. 84). The theory of evolution is the case in point. On the one hand, plenty of church leaders in the 19th century actually welcomed Darwinism both for its explanatory power and theological possibilities. Charles Kingsley, for example, criticised Paley’s argument from design for its mechanical and static notion of providence, finding the idea of a God who directs but does not determine an evolutionary process an altogether more dynamic one. On the other hand, Darwin’s notorious loss of faith had little to do with his scientific discoveries but everything to do (a) with his profound distaste for the “damnable doctrine” of eternal punishment, and (b) with his inconsolable grief over the death of his little daughter. To cut to the chase (as McGrath puts it in another recent book, Dawkins’ God, which is a comprehensive demolition of the scientific fundamentalism of the bad-tempered self-styled “Devil’s Chaplain” from Oxford): “The ‘conflict’ model [between science and religion] has its origins in the specific conditions of the Victorian era, in which an emerging professional intellectual group [i.e. natural scientists] sought to displace a group which had hitherto occupied the place of honour [i.e. the Anglican clergy].” Moral: always pay close attention to the social location of ideas, and to the way knowledge is deployed in the service of ideology and power. As a Reformed churchman, I was most riveted – and shamed – by the discussion of the link between Protestantism and the emergence of atheism. While the Reformers’ desacralisation of creation (the old nature/grace dichotomy) contributed, laudably, to the rise of the natural sciences and the decline of magic and superstition, nevertheless, by uncoupling the holy from material reality it also evacuated everyday life of transcendence. Moreover, with its biblical literalism and suspicion of metaphor, Protestantism led to the inflation of reason at the expense of the imagination. And not only in ossified Protestant orthodoxy but in plodding Protestant liberalism. So while the systematicians and the questers for the historical Jesus were boring the faith out of people, the poets (Shelly’s “unacknowledged legislators of mankind”) tried to make up the imaginative deficit, not by lapsing into outright atheism, which they found equally soulless, but by listening for signals of transcendence outside conventional Christianity, above all in nature beautiful and sublime. McGrath himself doesn’t make the connection but I’ll suggest it: take the fossilized theological correctness of conservative evangelicals, the asphyxiating closures of reactionary Catholics, the busted-flush theology of liberals, and the theological suicide of anti-realists, and is it any wonder that the hungry are searching for bread in the empty larders of smorgasbord spirituality and New Age mumbo-jumbo?
I love the point about the anti authoritarian nature of the sciences. Capital T truth isn't in the service of any party, ideology or religion. Rather, it's something that we seek after using different tools. Ignore the hyperbole of this Reuters story on evolution; it makes a similar point. Science and religion are both attempts to describe something that is larger than either method alone, and probably bigger than both together. Don't make a science out of religion and don't make a religion of science.

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