Friday, November 28, 2008

The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology.

Alister E. McGrath set out to reestablish the validity and value of natural theology by introducing a new Christian natural theology. In order for natural theology to be authoritative it must first start from a Christian perspective, according to McGrath. The intent of The Open Secret is not to provide a comprehensive understanding on McGrath’s new natural theology, but it is to open dialogue about how a new natural theology can and should be developed. In my brief review of this work I will provide an overview of the three parts of the book, followed by a brief analysis of the book and role of this book in future natural theology dialogues.
In part one of The Open Secret, McGrath seeks to explain why natural theology has developed and the overall context in which natural theology exists. The reality of a transcendent God is the first component he seeks to explain and establish as a foundation for the need for natural theology and the content of that theology. If God is not transcendent, then knowing about him through the created order is not possible. He spends the majority of the first section unpacking what it means to say that God is transcendent for not only Christianity, but also science and all of life.
The second section of the book is concerned with cleaning out the rubbish of previous natural theologies and purposing a new view of natural theology that is in line with an orthodox Christian worldview that deal appropriately with the doctrine of creation and the kingdom of God. “The natural world, seen in a particular way, is presented as evidence for the character of the kingdom of God, or the attributes of the divine” (pg. 123). The problem that McGrath points to in our “seeing” creation in an appropriate way is the depravity of humanity. He acknowledges that humanity is unable to have a full understanding of God through a natural theology that operates strictly on general revelation. The natural theology that Barth condemned is also condemned by McGrath. Our hindered vision is illustrated another way, “To use an image due to Michael Polanyi, we could say that the natural order, when viewed through the prism of the Christian tradition, ceases to be a noise and becomes a tune” (pg 184).
The rediscovery McGrath is arguing for in the second portion of this book is one that requires a faith in Christ in order to have a better understanding of what God is doing through the natural order. In addition, one’s faith in Christ does not grant them infallible access to understanding nature because, “nature is thus to be seen as a continual reminder and symbol of a renewed creation, a world which we do not yet know but believe to lie over the horizons of our human existence” (pg. 208). Nature can only allow an unbeliever to have a distorted understanding of God because of humanities vision problem. The Christocentric focus in the realm of natural theology is not only new and revolutionary, but essential for an evangelical natural theology that is able to withstand evangelical criticism.
The third section of the book focuses on the categories of “truth, beauty, and goodness.” McGrath illustrates that all of humanity is concerned with and drawn towards truth, beauty, and goodness. His heart is captured in the following statement, “We must aim to convey or bring about “an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things” (pg 285). This new vision of natural theology moves beyond the apologetical realm of proving the existence of God and becomes applicable for not only those seeking God, but all the more for those who are followers of Christ. One’s worship is not complete without an appropriate natural theology. McGrath captures this fact by quoting the great Jon Edwards, “When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ” (pg 284). The broadening of one’s perspective of God’s intention for creation opens one up to a richer worship that is stunted without Edward’s worldview.
The Open Secret is a revolutionary book that left me wanting more, and anticipating the next publication from McGrath that will follow this work. McGrath is infamous for publishing a book that will serve as a springboard to a more in depth analysis of a topic, or a multivolume collection. He provides not only an evangelical opinion, but a highly scientific approach to a complex topic that could result in the furthering of the crucial dialogue between science and theology. This work will serve as a shot in the arm to a Christian approach to natural theology. The crucial component that I found in this book was the “ground-clearing” that must take place in order for a sound and solid natural theology to be constructed.
Since natural theology has been stigmatized by the Enlightenment and theologians like Karl Barth, those who wish to develop an Evangelical natural theology are going to be leaning on the work of McGrath for years to come. The value of McGrath’s purposely is not only because it is scientifically faithful but because it is also overwhelmingly Evangelical. I believe that the final section of the book provides a contemporary application of McGrath’s theology that will result in the expansion of Christian’s worship of the almighty God. The practical application of this new natural theology is a component that cannot be denied by would be naysayers. I see the practicality that permeates McGrath’s natural theology as paramount to its application and future impact on the ongoing science and theology conversation. As we continue to see the increase of relativism and the epistemological breakdown that has resulted from the postmodern condition, we need to reevaluate crucial theological categories like natural theology. Pre-Enlightenment natural theology is dead and of no value for us today. The new natural theology is seen through the eyes of Christ and can be summarized by saying, “Natural theology is the approach to nature that arises from the inhibition of the Christian faith, leading to nature being “seen” in a certain way” (pg. 233). McGrath has answered the bell that resulted from the death of this natural theology and not only answered it, but shattered the bell through The Open Secret.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ravaging Wolves at the Gym

So this morning I was working out at the local YMCA and encountered the savagery that takes place before 7:00 am at the gym. I set my dumbells down, walked to get a drink, and some guy swoops in and snatches them up like a hungry crow diving on fresh road kill. I was shocked. Did he not see that I was using them? A similar type of incident happened last week when I was at the same Y at nearly the same time. A man with a shaved head and a scowl that would frighten young children dove onto a machine right in front of me as if he was going to miss out on his bread alotment for the month. Do people really need to act like this at the gym? I thought that those who worked out before the rest of the world was awake was supposed to be bound together by mutual deference. If you are getting out of bed hours before the sun cracks the horizon, you should acknowledge and respect the rest of the morning goons. So the next time that you are thinking about rolling out of bed early and heading to the gym for an early workout, watch out for those ravaging wolves who are scoping out your equipment from across the gym.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Are we really sheep?

November has fully engulfed Minnesota. I sit here gazing out at a fresh blanket of white that covers the dormant grass and accentuates the barren limbs of oak trees. Christmas lights can be spotted on a few eaves, and Christmas wreaths are finding their way into numerous retail stores. Beyond the egg nog in the cooler at the grocery store, there is something else that cannot be missed adorning the feet of a plethora of womens feet in the land of 10,000 lakes and across this great nation, UGGs! These trendy sheepskin boots that have been imported from Australia and overtaken every females Christmas wish list. Whether it is the colorful shorties, the gaudy fur kissed, or the classic tan mid-high, the UGG fad has taken hold of, not only our college campuses, but our entire country. I have been told that they are amazing boots that keep your feet warm but not too warm. The wool is like a cozy blanket that your feet can't wait to be encased in. I am not arguing that they boots are not top shelf, but there is something that concerns me about this trend. Are we all a bunch of sheep?

How often is there a fad that one person starts and then the masses simply buy into because "everyone is doing it." Are we simply drinking the Kool-Aid because everyone else is and we don't want to be left out? Are the UGGs a status symbol, or are they the cats meow? Why are women in sunny Phoenix buying up furry leather boots that are rated for the Tundra? I think that there is something in all of us that has resulted from our need to be accepted and desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. I think back to seventh grade and my new American Eagle sandles that I bought instead of Tevas. Since Yankton is three years behind the rest of the country AEO did not mean stylish and trendy, it meant generic. Therefore, I was labeled as "Generic Eric" because I had broken away from the Teva movement. Who would consider American Eagle generic in this day and age? However, my intent in blogging about the "sheep nature" is not to seek sympothy for some buried wound. I simply want people to consider why they want particular styles, brands, or trendy items.

The old addage, "Would you jump off a cliff if Jimmy jumped off a cliff" fits very well into the world of fashion trends. Would you be wearing those Australian boots if the other 75% of college females were not wearing them? Why do we simply go through life with our eyes on "others" for what we should be wearing, doing, saying, eating....Can we not be different? Do we not make decisions because they are good decisions? How can we live outside of the sheep mentality. Stop following the crowds and take some time to ponder why you are wearing what you are wearing and doing what you are doing.

A Christian Natural Theology?

A Christian Natural Theology is an inappropriate and deceptive title for John B. Cobb Jr.'s on the applicability of Whiteheadean philosophy and natural theology. Natural theology is a portion of this particular book and becomes the emphasis in the final twenty pages. However, he spends the lion's share of this book describing Whitehead's philosophy and his own process worldview. In this post I will provide a brief overview of Cobb's book, including detailed description of a few of his arguments, followed by my own critique of this particular work.
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the book is Cobb's presentation of Whitehead's thought. The first piece of Whiteheadian philosophy that is essential to the book is his understanding of time and reality (actual occasions).  For Whitehead, reality is not comprised of individual events that are able to be dissected and analyzed, but is a continual flow of undefinable occasions.  "The sense of there being a reality other than our experience given to us in the experience is absolutely primitive" (Cobb Jr. pg. 6).  Once Cobb has explained Whitehead's conception of reality, he turns his focus to humanity.  The human soul is built on top of Whitehead's view of experience.  For Whithead, and Cobb, the soul is immaterial and thus immeasurable.  "It is nothing but the sequence of the experience that constitute it" (Cobb Jr. pg. 19)  From this, Whitehead coined the phrase, "living person," which is a soul.  Since humans are "living persons" there is not life after death for Whitehead, but Cobb does not believe that natural theology needs to be concerned about such issues.
Whitehead's doctrine of God is as equally as complex as his anthropology and complicates the relationship between humanity and nature even further.  Science is one of the main areas of Whitehead's experience, therefore, his doctrine of God is highly influenced by science and at times stereotypes orthodox Christianity as only believing in a "God of the gaps" approach to science.  Whitehead is against a personal conception of God and, "He even denies that religious experience provides adequate warrant for affirming the actuality of God" (Cobb Jr. pg. 90).  He goes on to argue that humanity shares in God and God's desire is to see the increase of all creatures.
Cobb concludes this book with his definition of theology and how natural theology fits into the larger realm of theology and in the even larger system that is the cosmos.  He throws some bold accusations at conservative evangelicals definition of theology and in particular, biblical theology before transitioning into what is supposed to be the focus of the book.  Cobb seeks to provide a philosophically robust natural theology that is not dependent on a community of conviction or theological foundation.  Instead, his natural theology focuses on "the findings of science, or the widespread experience of humankind" (Cobb Jr. pg. 176).  Since he knows that many of his critics will try to label his natural theology as relativistic, Cobb attempts to rebut them in the final pages of the book rather than through further publications.  However, he seems to do the exact opposite of what he is trying to do by making statements like the following, "There is no human value that is eternally sanctioned for all times and places" (Cobb Jr. pg 181).  The book ends with Cobb's final argument for why Whitehead's philosophy is the best option for a Christian natural theology, and is anything but inadequate or heretical. 
Although many orthodox Christian theologians have a great disdain for Cobb and his work, I think that his perspective can be a rejuvenating breath of fresh air for our understanding of natural theology. Cobb is not afraid to take on the monumental challenges that rationalism and the Enlightenment have created for theology and Christianity and I am grateful for that. Also, I agree with Cobb when he says, "the partly legitimate rejection of natural theology has led much of Protestant theology to fail to come effectively to grips with this kind of responsible thinking" (Cobb Jr. pg. 173). The scientific revolution has forced Christian theology and doctrine to adapt long held beliefs because they have been proven to be suspect at best and false at worst. Since Cobb has a high view of science and the empirical verification that science operates on to confirm the veracity of claims, we must be open to the advice that he contributes to the conversation. 
The first problem that must be addressed in Cobb’s presentation is that of relativism. He attempts to counter this claim in the final chapter of the book by claiming to not be relativistic; however, he contradicts his claim by arguing for a confessional form of theology that transforms truth claims into plastic assertions that are only valid within particular groups and contexts. In addition, he contends that we must be open to the truth claims of all faiths, and not be exclusivistic in our understanding of truth. This is yet another example of the need to accept Cobb’s worldview in order to by into his thinking. As a radical pluralist, Cobb will not allow for Christianity, or any religion for that matter, to claim to have ultimate absolute truth that trumps competing truth claims.  Furthermore, he exhorts Christians to "set aside all their particular belief about Jesus Christ, God, miracles, salvation, and eternal life that they recognize as peculiar to that tradition" (Cobb Jr. pg. 176).  This idea is preposterous.  How can he argue in the first portion of the book that humans are so tightly bound that we are unable to separate key events in our lives and then urge people to bifurcate their core theology from the rest of their thinking?  Theology is a tight web that is affected by all other components of the web.  One cannot simply section off portions of their theology for modification and believe that the rest of their theology will not be affected.
The second problem I have with Cobb’s thought is his description of theology. “One’s work is theology even if one ignores all earlier statements and begins only with the way things appear to one from that perspective which one acknowledges as given to one in some community of shared life conviction” (Cobb Jr. pg. 166).  How is one able to do theology from the present without any understanding of the past?  Again, if reality is comprised of linked events that build on one another, how is one able to secure a vacuum like setting to construct a theology devoid of past influence?  I find Cobb's description of theology to be unacceptable, therefore, Cobb's natural theology is inchoate.  
As you can see from my brief analysis of Cobb's, A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead, the book does not fulfill its purposed aim in the title, nor does it provide a robust natural theology that is able to function in any realm, let alone an orthodox Christian one.  I do find some value in Cobb's work for those both inside and outside the theology of the church.  Science is a key component of our world, and needs to be taken seriously.  Christians can no longer act like ostriches and bury their heads in the sand in hopes that science will go away.  On the same token, Christian theology, if it is to affect the masses must not cloister itself from the secular world and must engage with folks like Cobb and Whitehead so that we are able to articulate our findings not only to those operating with a similar worldview, but with those who disagree with us. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Would Jesus have voted?

As I sit here with CNN in the background and Wolf Blitzer's voice ringing in my ear, I have to wonder what Christ would have to say to us.  For too long I have been repulsed by the "Christian Republican" classification that condemns those who align themselves with the democratic party.  The amalgamation of theology and politics is a travesty to both arenas.  Whoever is elected tonight should not effect one's civic actions or religious beliefs.  The church must always be the church, devoid of what is happening in the political arena.  It is true that we as the church are to be championing legislation that will help those who are unable to help themselves.  Christ's ministry was to those who were hurting, in need, and unable to help themselves (widows and children).  Will people start to serve now that their party is in office?  Will people stop serving because their party is no longer in power?  How does democracy affect the message of Christ?  In my opinion, the gospel is the same message today as it was when Christ entered our world through the incarnation.  We must seek to further the kingdom of God without being influenced by our political convictions.  Shame on us if we are more concerned about political platforms than the mission of Christ.  The harsh reality is that the people who were starving and homeless last night are the same who will be in need tomorrow night.  Set aside your preconceived notions of what is going to happen now that we are beyond Nov. 4th and there is a new man in the White House and focus on what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  Will the elections affect our country, most likely.  Will Christ work in your life affect how you care for the world, I pray it does.