Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A profoundly atheistic interpretation of the natural world is in fact more useful for theological reflection

MacDonald’s concept of self-determination remains too narrowly formalistic and analytical, so that one is left with the feeling that this concept just doesn’t do very much after all. MacDonald has a lot to say about logic and rationality, and he suggests that the “litmus test” for his thesis is whether it is “logically consistent” (p. 133). But logical consistency is hardly an adequate litmus test for a theological proposal of this scope. When the problem of God’s spatiality is raised, for example – in what sense can God said to be spatial if his location cannot be defined by geometrical description? – MacDonald merely assures us: “it is enough that ‘God determines himself to be in a place in this world’ … is a logically consistent claim” (p. 117).
But this is clearly not enough – not by half – since there’s all the difference in the world between the (minimal) formal requirement of logical consistency and the material requirement of a convincing explanation. Concepts in dogmatic theology ought to have real explanatory power; even if they can’t clear up every problem, they should certainly “prove themselves” by reaching explanatorily beyond the safe circle of tautology (after all, any tautology is logically invincible – but that doesn’t mean it explains very much!).
It seems to me that MacDonald could thus refine his proposal, not by altering its fundamental thesis – that the mode of divine action is self-determination – but by allowing the formal questions of “rationality” and “logical consistency” to recede into the background, and by concentrating explicitly on the development of a more expansive, more differentiated, and more discursive account of self-determination.
Of course, Karl Barth’s doctrine of election is itself precisely such an attempt to develop an expansive christological conception of divine being as self-determining being – and Barth’s own ontological construction (cf. also the interpretive work of Robert Jenson and Bruce McCormack) clearly indicates that the concept of self-determination need not be reduced to tautology, but can exercise extraordinary explanatory power which makes itself felt in every corner of the dogmatic loci.
I voice these criticisms, then, as a friend and ally of MacDonald’s proposal. I think a new ontological vision of divine action as divine self-determination is precisely the way forwards for contemporary dogmatics; and I believe one of the resources for this ontological thinking is a radical recovery of Barth’s critique of natural theology (as a corollary of Barth’s christological actualism). So I think MacDonald’s proposal is of tremendous value, even if the concept of self-determination needs to be developed in a much more refined and more expansive way than it is here.
One final note: in my opinion, MacDonald’s radical critique of natural theology – “the world would be the same even if God didn’t create it!” – is a stunning intervention in contemporary theology (where, in most quarters, “creation” has become an axiom which wholly determines the structure of christology, reconciliation, eschatology, etc). Nevertheless, I don’t think I agree with MacDonald’s suggestion that this stance eliminates the significance of dialogue with the natural sciences.
On the contrary, dialogue with science may play a crucial role in interpreting the “site” or “situation” (to borrow Badiou’s terminology) in which the event of God’s self-determining action takes place. If God interrupts the natural order in a new event of self-relation to the world (thus constituting the world as “creature”), then it is of great significance to understand what kind of world this is which God interrupts and reconfigures.
For example: the core event on which theology reflects is the resurrection of Jesus; and although this event is unthinkable for natural science, the site of this event (i.e. a dead human body) is an object of scientific knowledge, and it is precisely this site which the resurrection interrupts and reconfigures (i.e. without this corpse, there could be no resurrection).
In other words, although there is no direct trajectory from scientific knowledge to a knowledge of divine action, science may nevertheless help us to understand the situation in which the divine action takes place, and the kind of reconfiguring which this action produces. And if this is the case, might it also be possible that a profoundly atheistic interpretation of the natural world is in fact more useful for theological reflection than any explicitly religious reading of nature?


  1. Exoteric religions (as per "faith" and theology) and scientism, share the same basic reductionist presumptions. Namely that we are inherently separate from the Divine Conscious Light, from the world process altogether, and from each other.

    All of these are presumed to be entirely "other" are are thus objectified.

    One of the Upanishads tells us that whenever there is presumed other then fear spontaneously arises.

    What is more the objectified "other" is always thus your enemy, and you are always thus at war with everything "other" including the Divine Coscious Light.

    Plus the moment that you objectify anything you automatically seek to control it (the "other"), and will thus eventually destroy the "other".

    So how "profound" could anyones understanding of anything possibly be when they are completely wrapped up in this (hell deep) fear based asana?

    And what has the "resurrection of jesus" got to do with anything?

    What about the tooth fairy, santa claus, and the easter rabbit, all of which belong (with "jesus") to the same pantheon of childhood cartoon characters.

    Theology reduces the Divine Conscious Light to the merely mortal meat-body human scale. And thus both controls the Divine and uses the "divine" to justify the inevitable horrors produced, justified, and promoted by the ecclesiastical "authorities".

    Murder and mayhem, imperial conquest, and empire justified by the genocidal tribal deity.

  2. Just to be clear - from a Christian perspective, God (the Divine Conscious Light) has chosen to be "merely mortal meat-body human scale" in Jesus of Nazareth. This is a scandal to our natural reason, along the lines of the tooth fairy, santa claus, etc. But God has done it out of love for us. It is God's self-reduction, not ours. If we were gods, we would not reduce ourselves for the sake of love. We would stay on our thrones, and it is precisely because we refuse to understand the love of this incarnate God that we continue to murder. God's coming down to us in the human Jesus is the greatest news to all cultures and all religions. Jesus overcoming the power of death in the resurrection is even greater news.