A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Science and the Eschatological Challenge to Theology (Part 2)

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(1) If the universe is a creation, it must make sense everlastingly and so ultimately it must be redeemed from transience and decay (John Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 146.)

The universe is indeed moving toward nonexistence in and of itself. Christians must understand that. Polkinghorne writes, "It is not for theology to deny the validity of science's 'horizontal' extrapolation of present physical process, but theology can point out the limited character of the prediction, in that it necessarily fails to take into account the 'vertical' resources, not accessible to scientific thinking" (p. 146). The natural evolutionary process is no cause for optimism. Left to its own processes, the history of the universe will end in futility. There can be no denying this.
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Polkinghorne is quick to point out that this cosmic senselessness is no more of a theological problem than the knowledge that each human life will end within decades. The transient nature of all things is the matter before us. So how does the creation make sense everlastingly?

First, If indeed the universe is a creation and not a happenstance of chance, and if the Creator is faithful and loving, then it is logically coherent to believe that creation will not be abandoned to collapse in on itself, nor will human beings simply return to the dust of their beginnings. Picking up on Moses' encounter with God on the mountain (Exodus 3:6), Jesus responds to the Sadducees (who denied resurrection) that God was not the God of the dead, but of the living, which included the patriarchs and matriarchs of old (Mark 12:18-27). "If we matter to God once-- and we certainly do-- then we must matter to God for ever" (p. 147).
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Every human being senses the incompleteness of life with the death of a loved one. No matter how long an individual may live and no matter how much she may accomplish in this brief existence, there remains a sense that life is left undone. We mourn over our mortality. And because of this we long to be with those who have died leaving us to face our own transient existence. Polkinghorne writes that there is something about this incompleteness in life "which demands a continuation of human lives beyond death into the further possibilities of what they might become" (p. 147).

Second, redemption is cosmic in scope. Too much theological reflection has been almost exclusively anthropocentric. The cosmic nature of Christ's redemption has been sorely neglected. Polkinghorne states, "This vast universe is not just there to be the backdrop for the human drama, now taking place after an overture that has lasted fourteen billion years. It all has a value of its own" (147). While more theologians are taking note of this in the past decade or so, there is still a paucity of reflection on redemption in cosmic perspective. Indeed, even back here on our home planet, there has been little reflection on how or whether the animal kingdom participates in redemption-- an issue explored by both John Wesley and C. S. Lewis.

The contrast between contemporary theologians and the writers of the New Testament could not be more pronounced. The Apostle Paul in particular affirms the cosmic aspect of redemption, that Christ was "pleased to reconcile all things to himself," and that "in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:15-20). And in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes,
 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now;and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:18-25).
Polkinghorne rightly observes, "It is remarkable... that the writers of the New Testament were able to overcome such parochiality, albeit while expressing themselves in terms of the cosmological understandings of their day" (p. 148).
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Third, new creation is the transformation of the old. The current futility and decay of the universe is understood coherently within an evolutionary framework. If the universe is to evolve, it must be transient. "In such a world, death is the absolutely necessary cost of new life" (p. 148). By allowing creation to evolve the Creator allows creation the freedom to make itself. Only in such fashion can God be in genuine relationship with what he creates.
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And while such creation is good, its continually transitory nature prevents it from becoming an everlasting good. "Thus we are led to think of creation as being an intrinsically two-step process: first the old creation making itself in the context of change and decay, and then the new creation that will no longer be in bondage to decay. These two stages of creation are linked together by the new arising not ex nihilo but ex vetere, as the resurrected and redeemed transformation of the old" (p. 149).

7 comments:

PopLid said...

"The universe is indeed moving toward nonexistence in and of itself. Christians must understand that" ....Please explain.
How can we speak of "nonexistence and decay" when considering the whole universe? Are we confusing expansion with decay? Energy conversion with decay? Can someone enlighten me?

Allan Bevere said...

Hi Frank,

Christians must understand that since the universe is heading toward its own demise, the only way for it to be rescued from nonexistence is by a special act of God. That's where salvation comes in.

As far as your second set of questions, instead of me confusing things even worse with my novice and likely inaccurate explanations, you might find this link helpful. http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/end.html

PopLid said...

So, the universe is heading for real trouble in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or so years? I really wouldn't call this its demise, nor would this be called important when reading Paul who thought Jesus was returning in his generation. The snap you heard was the right side of my brain!
Forgive me, but there must be slightly more pressing issues before us all.

Allan Bevere said...

Frank,

I think you really miss the point here. Of course, the demise of the universe is not our concern personally. And I am not completely convinced that Paul was certain that Jesus would return within his generation, though he certainly holds it open as a possibility.

The issue for Christians is that God will redeem all of creation. So how do we understand that redemption in light of what we know about the nature of the universe? There are those who insist that the transient nature of the universe demonstrates that there is no God and the universe, as well as all of human life, is without meaning and purpose.

Christians beg to differ and there is a logical coherence to our response.

As far as the right side of the brain, this is indeed cognitive stuff and has occupied some of the greatest minds in history.

You may think there are more pressing issues and there are no doubt plenty of important matters that occupy us, but I have spoken with more than a few students in the university setting who have become borderline to outright atheists because of these kinds of matters. I have a great interest in letting them know that there is a logical and coherent alternative to a universe by accident.

PopLid said...

I think I do get the point, only it's not the point you want me to get. In your response you make the statement that “ The issue for Christians is that God will redeem all of creation.” You do not present this as a theory, but as fact. You then take any evidence that you can that appears to support this fact and reject or ignore evidence to the contrary. This is rationalization, not science. Scientists are taking facts and putting together theories which attempt to explain and forecast events in the future. But their theorems are constantly being updated based on new findings, new data, new facts. With your method, you can't ever change the fact, but must constantly alter the rational to exclude new findings that don't agree with the original dogma. That does not mean that the original fact is false, but it does cause loss of adherents when new data is discovered that can't be rationalized. So, if we don't allow our understanding of God to change as new wonders of His love are expressed, we are all lost to (the previous generation's view of) Him. We can hold sacred the view that we know and understand, but we must let the next generations evolve their understanding of God as He shows Himself to them.

Allan Bevere said...

Frank,

The redemption of creation is at the heart of Christianity. If God is not going to redeem, then there is no need for Advent, Holy Week nor the worship of God at all.

As far as the rest of your comments-- they are completely irrelevant to this post.

Allan Bevere said...

One more point as I read your comments again: The claim that God is going to redeem creation is a theological claim, not a scientific one. The issue I am wrestling with here is where do science and theology intersect.