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, September 12, 2012

Science and the Eschatological Challenge to Theology (Part 5)

Previous posts in the series:
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(3) In so far as present human imagination can articulate eschatological expectation, it has to do within the tension between continuity and discontinuity. There must be sufficient continuity to ensure that individuals truly share in the life to come as their resurrected selves and not as new beings given the old names. There must be sufficient discontinuity to ensure that the life to come is free from the suffering and mortality of the old creation (John Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 153.)
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In part five of this series we continue with eschatological criterion three. The previous post with dealt with the first two conditions of "consistent continuity"-- embodiment and temporality. In this post we highlight conditions three and four-- process and personhood and the soul.
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(c) Process. Polkinghorne writes, "If we learn anything about the character of the Creator from what science can tell us about the history of this creation, it is surely that God is patient and subtle, content to work through unfolding process and not by sudden interventions of arbitrary power" (p. 158). God does stand as wholly transcendent above creation intervening periodically in certain miraculous ways only to return to the "upstairs" of heaven. To be sure, God is transcendent in that God is not to be equated with the creation, but God is also immanent-- God is always and everywhere present in and with creation. The miracle of Jesus resurrection "is not a one-off divine tour de force, but the seminal event from which God's ultimate salvific process has started to unfold with implications for all humanity (1 Corinthians 15:22)" (p. 158). Miracles should not be interpreted as divine interventions, but as the ever-present God acting in creation in ways we cannot explain. Three observations flow from this understanding of process and the character of God.
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First, "God's love and mercy will continue to operate in the new creation as they do in the old creation" (p. 158). We visited this issue in a previous post. Polkinghorne suggests that those who have not responded favorably in this life to the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ will be given an opportunity in the next. While I am somewhat agnostic on this issue, it seems to me that Polkinghorne's concern for process from current creation to new creation can also be adequately answered by an inclusivist approach to the matter.
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Nevertheless, Polkinghorne's point is important. God will not withdraw God's divine love in this world. God will surely not withdraw it in the next. Of course, human beings can resist that love. "If there will turn out to be those who will resist that love for ever, with its offer of forgiveness and redemption, then they will have condemned themselves to live the life of hell. Polkinghorne rightfully rejects the picture of hell as literally a hot place of torment. Such imagery is meant to be taken to reveal hell as a state to be avoided. Rather, Polkinghorne prefers the "imaginative picture" of hell painted by C.S. Lewis as "a place of infinite boredom, painted grey, from which the divine life has deliberately been excluded by the choice of its inhabitants.... the dreary town, lost down the crack in the floor of heaven" (p. 159). On this, I agree with him.
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Second, "The process of the transforming work of grace will continue in the life of the world to come" (p. 159). For Polkinghorne, God's judgment is not like appearing before the angry judge who pronounces the harsh sentence, but rather that judgement is more like the Johannine sense of shedding light on the human preference for darkness (John 3:19). "The consequences of judgment will not be endless punishment but the hopeful opportunity for purgation" (p. 159). Polkinghorne is not embracing the medieval understanding of Purgatory. He is suggesting that the transforming nature of God's grace will continue in the world to come.
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"The third insight resulting from an acknowledgement of the role of process in the divine plan of salvation relates to the life of heaven itself, for that too will have its character of dynamical perfection" (p. 160). If eternity is static it will become boring. As Polkinghorne notes, "even the man who said that when he got to heaven he would play golf every day might eventually come to tire of that pastime. If our future life depended on our own resources, these fears would be justified" (p. 160). But the world to come will be an existence in which we will enjoy the benefits of God's unlimited resources-- riches we have only known in a finite way in this life. The world to come will be "a life of unending fulfilment" (p. 160).
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(d) Personhood and the Soul. The question of the human soul is of vital importance and yet difficult to speak of with certainty and clarity, particularly since there have been disparate understandings of the soul. The response to this mystery, however, is not silence. "Like Augustine in relation to his own writing on the Trinity, we should modestly conclude that it is better to say something than to remain totally silent" (p. 163).
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Polkinghorne rightly note that Christian hope centers not on some notion of the immortality of the soul, some abstract spiritual survival. Rather Christian hope centers on death and resurrection. If human beings are not to be compartmentalized into body and soul (and for some who add spirit), but rather "embodied human beings," then the term "soul" refers not to some invisible part of women and men, but rather it denotes "the real me," the essence of our particular personhood" that cannot be separated from the body. Indeed, if the soul is defined as something radically inconsistent with our current existence and only a part of what is to come, it denies the necessary continuity between this world and the next. Polkinghorne reminds us that not even our bodies are static and unchanging. The atoms that make us who we are are changing all the time. We human beings are just as complex down to the minutiae of who we are as is the universe. The soul is "the pattern" that is us.
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The argument here is complex and difficult, and Polkinghorne does not answer the question of what happens to the pattern that is us between our own deaths and the future resurrection, but what we seem to have here is "that God's creative action necessarily has a two-step character. First, in a kenotic act of allowing the creaturely other to possess its divinely granted independence, God brought into being a world that exists at some metaphysical (space?) removed from its Creator" (p. 164). Second, the next stage is a transformed creation in which God's purposes can be completely fulfilled. This world to come has a continuity with this current existence in that it has its own time, space, and matter, albeit in its own form we can only completely understand in experiencing it. But one of the illustrations Polkinghorne employs that I find quite helpful is that this "world contains sacraments; that world will be wholly sacramental" (p. 165). The sacraments enact what God is doing in this world and it is a looking forward to what God will finally do. The sacraments are an affirmation of eschatological hope that has come into our present existence, but is experienced only in a partial way.
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"Christians believe that this world of the new creation has already begun to come into being with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the unique link between the life of God and the life of creatures, the bridge by which entry into the divine life becomes possible for us, so that it is in Christ that eschatological fulfillment will be attained" (p. 166).

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