Believing Again: What Good is Theology in an Age of Science?

By Derrick Peterson

"There are two ways to get home: one is to stay there. The other is to walk around the whole world till we come back to the same place."

Chesterton wrote that at the beginning of The Everlasting Man. It was an appeal to an image, and the image itself was meant to convey a lesson which Chesterton then tells in the form of a short story he wanted to write, but never quite got to ("like every book I never wrote," he says humorously "it is by far the best book I have ever written.") It is the story of a boy who goes on a quest to find the grave of a giant. He leaves his home in the hills of Wessex to transverse the globe in search of some grandiloquent and vast entrance where the giant lay. But "when he was far enough from home," says Chesterton, theorizing about how his unwritten story would have played out, "he would have looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen-garden, shining flat on the hillside like the colors and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but were too large and too close to be seen."

He ends this recounting of the untold story with this: "That, I think, is the true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence today."

This, I think, is also a picture of the theological task today.

Often we ask the question: “how is theology relevant to life?”  This seems to presume that there is a level of existence that is more sure, more solid, the just there of every-day living.  Then there is theology, airy and insubstantial and seemingly abstract, which we—somehow!—must figure out to apply to the solid bedrock of our lives.  At best doctrines seem little else than stubbornly anchored to our existence by sheer acts of will, having no real importance even while we continue to believe such things.  At worst, like balloons caught in high wind, haughty terms such as predestination, trinity, creation from nothing, by all appearances refuse to touch down to the bedrock.  And so it seems theology must give way to more concrete disciplines, until God himself takes leave of the ordinary and, leaving it untouched, simply whimpers into irrelevance.

Atheism: Business As Usual?

Take the unusual approach initiated by Atheists in 2009, where Britain’s bright-red double-decker buses found themselves chauffeur to a curious advertisement: “There’s Probably No God.  Now Stop Worrying, And Enjoy Your Life.”  Such an endeavor in and of itself may not be surprising.  Such has been the zeal of many atheists like Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling (themselves providing funding for this campaign) that it seems inevitable anti-faith would not rest content to be a mere opponent, but would evolve into a counter-evangelistic enterprise.  Nor in itself should such things worry Christians.  Even Paul Woolley, who at the time was the director for the Christian think-tank Theos, donated £50 to the advertising fund, saying “it was a great way to get people to start thinking about God.”

What is curious about the campaign is how it represents atheism: business as usual.  As Marshall McLuhan was so famous for saying: “the medium is the message,” and here the medium, of course, is a bus ad.  Buses which so often just pass by us, hardly noticed in our day to day life.  This, oddly enough, blends quite well with the peculiar content of the ad message: “There is probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy life.”  Certainly some may have been walking around town worrying about God, secretly hoping against hope a bus ad would unfetter them of their metaphysical burden, allowing them to just get on with life; but by and large this proclamation—No God, Carry On—almost gives the impression of someone bursting into a room full of people minding their own business and yelling at them all: “Nothing’s Different!  Everything is great! Keep doing what you’re doing!”  Nietzsche’s Madman in The Joyful Science this is not.  For Nietzsche, to get rid of God is like needing to uproot the basement and foundations so we can build a new house upon them; for Dawkins, it is no more difficult than letting go of a bouquet of balloons.

How would we respond to this?  Aside from what would undoubtedly be a powerful (though perhaps momentary) suspicion that, just so, everything was precisely not alright and not the same, we would, much as when a bus turns from one block to another, merely forget its passing and go back to what we were doing.  Herein lies the oddity: atheism, once predicated on social and moral revolution, now means normalcy (of a sort); it means everything can remain as it is right now, and as it is going to be in the future (our hopes, our dreams, our loves) minus an obtrusive but merely superstitious figment called “God.”  Thus similar to Nietzsche, in a sense, for the bus ad God is already dead and this is, not a diagnoses, but a description; unlike Nietzsche, the bus ad discerns no metaphysical or moral consequences.  There is no cost (and even its benefit is merely the negative relief of no longer having to look over one’s metaphysical shoulder).  But just so, Dawkins atheism remains distinctively Christian in flavor.

Forgotten Inheritance.

Our seemingly ordinary lives are built upon the bones of theologies long forgotten.  We—all of us, knowingly or not—are haunted by God and the legacy of the Gospel, slowly, intricately working its way through history. What we often take as common sense, or “just the way things happen to be” are often gifts given after a long line of reflection.  Like Chesterton’s adventurous boy, all of us seem unaware that we live upon ancient things.

This is true for any number of ideas, institutions, and technologies: be it the notion of universal human equality (foreign to the ancient world, except perhaps in Stoicism) born from the concept of humanity as God’s image and Christian agape; the idea of God as a rational law-giver, setting the staging grounds for the notion of “natural law” in scientific investigation, or what some have called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”; history as a progressive, directional (as opposed to cyclical) concept is the legacy of theology (as the German Wolfhart Pannenberg notes in his early work, the directional consciousness of history was built “in between the tension of God’s promises and their fulfillment to the Jewish people”); the increased organization of hospitals and medicine, were ordered within environments inspired by Christian soul-care; indeed, even the very notion of the “self” blossomed in a particular Christian environment.  And though Christianity’s relationship to slavery through history is a complex one that must be carefully considered, it is no accident that the earliest call to abolish slavery as a structural institution was fueled by Christian theology as far back as the work of Gregory of Nyssa.

It is not just that Christian theology and life often set the theoretical agenda (however much this is ignored or dismissed) for modern and post-modern philosophical, social,  political, governmental, and economic disputes, even though this is true.  Take the famous philosopher Martin Heidegger (one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century), who serves as an excellent example of how the Christian theological past not only affected Continental philosophy and political theory at large, but has influences traceable back to specific thinkers like Duns Scotus, Martin Luther, but in particular the profound thought of St. Augustine

It is not only that the so-called "History of the Warfare of Science and Theology" has recently been definitively demonstrated to be a farce of historiography, one ignorant to the historical evolution of the conceptual borders it uses.  Nor is it merely that that Scientific Revolution, far from being a systematic call to abolish the Christian religion in the name of science, was in fact absolutely saturated by theology and the inheritance of natural philosophy handed down to it (whether from ideas of God’s will and providence, or even how meticulous scientific investigation arose out of a felt need to overcome the deficiencies introduced by the fall of Adam).

Even more to the point it is, rather, that if these things are true, then to do theology is not to “add” an additional (and perhaps superfluous) thing to “ordinary” life. Often, the things we take for granted as day-to-day commonsense have already been given to us as pieces of thought and practice invented, encouraged, or modified by one aspect of Christian life and thought, or another.  Theology does not often have to “touch upon” the solid core of lived life, for it is always-already there, waiting to be unearthed,awoken, understood.

This holds often (or perhaps: especially) when thought is presented as especially “anti-theological” or “purely scientific.”  Richard Dawkins, the unflappable opponent of Christian theism, can often present his scientific findings as a sort of “ersatz” or replacement religion.  He can describe the wonder of the scientific enterprise in almost religious terms.  For example in his Unweaving the Rainbow (x):

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite. 

While they would disagree that it is equal to the highest passion humans can experience, these are nonetheless terms that Aquinas, or Augustine, Isaac Newton or Copernicus, would have been comfortable to use regarding their investigation of the natural world as well, precisely because the world itself is an expression of God.  Dawkins’ rhapsody is not an alternative “hard science” to theology, it is a theology done in a mode of self-forgetfulness.  It is, in fact, a particularly British (and American) vision of God (or the Universe) as the Sublime, which is so ubiquitous in 20th century science-fiction writing.

But “so what?” you might ask.  “That is just Dawkins’ subjective aesthetic appreciation of the data he uses; it doesn’t affect his research itself even if one concedes it sounds like a sort of secular theology.”

Let us therefore find an even more specific example regarding how Dawkins' theology does, in fact, affect his scientific judgment—affecting, that is, the data he sees the data he does not, and how it is all organized into a meaningful whole.  Famously, (and one thinks, specifically formulated as an affront to the Christian value of the person), Dawkins speaks of “selfish genes,” noting that the ultimate rationale for the person—their hopes, dreams, desires, and loves—are none of those things themselves, but are each in turn reducible to mere survival (that is, procreation and the passing on of our genetic information).  All of the things that make us who we are as a historical individual, are as dispensable as a bullet-casing: the discardable and superficial shell of the inner core of meaning that are Dawkins’ update of the Cartesian soul, the genes.  But don’t take my word for it.  Here is Dawkins from The Selfish Gene (21):

Now they [genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating us by remote control.  They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.

We as people are mere “robots” to Dawkins, because the real action happens in the genes.  Now, several immediate things must be said.  The first is that Dawkins is adamant this is merely a metaphor, as he stresses in his book The Extended Phenotype (1): “I doubt that there is any experiment that could be done to prove my claim.”  Thus in part, we must try and accept his own interpretation that it is merely helpful fiction.  Yet, metaphors are powerful, and allow us to structure data.  And his protestations aside, the metaphor, and the concept of genes that goes with it, do a lot of heavy theoretical lifting for Dawkins.

For one, as has been pointed out, the "selfish-gene" metaphor interprets the nature of genes and genetic individuality in a way that very much makes Dawkins part and parcel of the individualist tradition coming down from Locke, Hobbes, into the Thatcherite-era mentality in which his Selfish Gene was originally written (and so in a doubly-ironic sense Dawkins merely perpetuates a line of Christian thought regarding individuality).  As such his sensibilities regarding what constitute the essence or ultimate meaning of a person begin to control not just the concept of a gene. In addition, the gene (as Dawkins represents it), since it is considered by Dawkins to be the most individual of all individual things (the new atom, replacing the old Adam)—just so becomes the most basic unit of action and responsibility.

And while Dawkins’ interpretation is powerful, and we can learn many things from it, not only does Dawkins not represent broader schools of interpretation about what a gene is and does, his interpretation can just as easily be reversed. Take the formulation by the biologist Denis Noble in his book The Music of Life (who agrees with Dawkins on many things):

Now they [genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges.  They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves.  We are the ultimate rational for their existence (12).

While Noble is no believer, his formulation is much more amenable to what Christianity teaches about the value and irreplaceability of the human individual.  And this is precisely why Dawkins seems to not like it: his selfish-gene and the theories that go with it (memes, for one) are often mere inversions of theological ideas inherited but now rejected.  Which is not to insist that theology and science are the same thing: may it never be!  Yet, whatever data it uses aside, Dawkins’ concept of the selfish-gene is in many respects an anti-theology in disguise--gaining its sharpness and contour by implicitly negating aspects of humankind traditionally valued by Christianity.  Nor is this merely part of his rhetoric; far from “mere metaphor,” the selfish-gene idea allows data to show up "as meaningful" in the way it does for Dawkins, while other interpretations of the meaning of life and humanity (namely, Christianity) become absurd, invisible, outdated.  Even if one does not want to concede Christian theology, this type of interpretive grid also disallows Dawkins to accept ideas like true, selfless altruism, or group selection.

Awake, O’Sleeper.

To drop theology, or God, as such, is not to merely “get on with your life,” as the bus ads would have us believe.  Nor is theology merely to ask “how does [“x” doctrine] apply to daily existence?”  Rather the theological task today, more primarily, is to regain and reawaken an awareness that we are all like Chesterton’s child-adventurer, thinking our lives “mundane” and earthly, when theology in fact sleeps like a giant beneath the rock and flesh of life, founding it, giving it (an all too-oft forgotten) meaning and direction.  Theology is the joy and high-adventure of calling us back to an awareness that life is not merely “natural” nor God the “supernatural” who is “up-there far away.”  Rather like the incarnation of Christ as fully God and fully man, so too life—even in its most ordinary—is always already theological in one kind or another.  In fact, as the atheist Terry Eagleton in his work Reason, Faith, and Revolution argues, “it was Christianity […] which invented the concept of everyday life” as we now know it (19).

This is not to foster a Christian triumphalism, for if theology was so truly ubiquitous then many horrors and ill-conceived attempts are also its children.  It is, however, to remind us that when asked “what is theology good for,” it may be quicker to name the few things it is not good for, for where can we turn, and to what depth can we flee, to escape the presence of God?