Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 4

Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 4

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Metanexus: Views 2001.12.28 3771 words

What is theology? And what does theology have to say to us? Is it truly thescience of God, in the way that physics might be considered the science ofmaterial objects and their interactions or biology viewed as the science ofthe lifeworld or of living objects? What, then, would be the scientificbasis for theology? Empirical data? Lived experience? Personal convictions?As Willem Drees observes:

If I would have been born in India, wouldn’t I have had differentconvictions? Even within a single tradition opinions diverge. The Biblicalwritings are no unity, as became clear when they became the subject ofhistorical-critical investigation (…). Some stories were told in thepalace or the temple, whereas others were told among farmers or shepherds.We too make out of this ‘library’ our own selection; some parts we considerto be important, while other texts are left in the background or read in a’creative’ way. We cannot trust blindly books or people. We always have toface the question: ‘And why do you consider this wisdom?’

So, are we seeking knowledge via theology? Or something more elusive, namelywisdom? Drees continues:

The exact sciences seem to offer more certainty. Once the mathematicsteacher has proved Pythagoras’ theorem (about the length of the hypotenuseof a rectangular triangle), the pupil seems to have no choice; whetherunderstood or not, whether they like it or not, the teacher is right.Theology has from time to time looked for secure support from the sciences.Some hope that cosmology offers an argument or even a proof for theexistence of God: there has been a beginning of the universe, any beginningneeds a cause, hence there is a cause surpassing the universe. However, sucha proof is not conclusive.

No, such proof is not conclusive. But one must needs ask: is the object inquestion actually amenable to this kind of study, i.e., science? Psychology,for instance, often waffles in the edge of a similar problem–the humanbeing as (animate) object versus the human being as (animated) subject. Forwhile experimental psychology may reveal insights into human behavior in theaggregate by way of the behavior of rats or monkeys, the data itself issomehow not readily amenable to counseling psychology of the individual manor woman. Why is this? Moreover, does theology also suffer from a confusionas to whether the god in question is a subject or an object?

These are precisely the kinds of issues and questions that are discussedtoday in the fourth part of our series on Creation: From Nothing Until Now(Paperback or Library Binding; ISBN: 0-4152-5653-4; Routledge; December2001, 128pp.) by Willem Drees. Parts 1, 2, and 3 were posted toMetanexus:Views on (2001.12.17), (2001.12.18), and (2001.12.27)respectively. Willem B. Drees is professor of philosophy of religion andethics at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He has an advanced degree intheoretical physics (Utrecht, 1977) and doctorates in theology (Groningen,1989) and philosophy (Amsterdam, 1994).

–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 4From: Willem B. DreesEmail: <>

Intermezzo: The nature of theology

At this point, I want to digress from the grand tour ‘from nothing untilnow’ to offer some reflections on the nature of theology. In writing the wayI have written above, I implicitly opt for a particular view of whattheology might be in our time.

Let me begin with describing a position I reject, theology as thescience of God. Biology is knowledge of the living (bios), psychology of thepsyche, sociology is about social processes. Thus, ‘theology’ presentsitself, at least linguistically, as knowledge of God (theos). A problematicissue is how we acquire such knowledge. On the basis of personalexperiences? Miracles? Science? A holy book?

Personal experiences do not form, in my opinion, a good basis forknowledge of God. Human experiences do not reach that far. Extraordinaryexperiences, such as those of overwhelming silence, deep loneliness, wildecstasy or deep communion with someone else, remain human experiences,shaped by our background, upbringing and situation. Experiences may betransforming ourselves, and we may start to see the world differently inconsequence of what we have experienced. However, that does not yet make anintense personal experience the basis for science, not even a ‘science ofGod’. What is rare, is not thereby outside of our science inspired view ofreality. The integrity of reality (scenes 3 and 7 [in Drees’ book]) has beenconfirmed again and again. ‘Miracles’, unexpected events, are not the end ofour knowledge but an occasion for further research. Miracles, extraordinaryevents, are in my opinion not a good basis for theology as a science.

It is, in my opinion, a very good thing for faith if we do not givemiracles a place in our view of natural reality. Emphasis on miracles maygive the impression that faith is about explaining events for which there isno scientific explanation. Such a kind of faith runs the risk of becoming a’God of the gaps’, withdrawing again and again on a smaller territory. Italso offers a problematic conception of God: God leaves control mostly tothe automatic pilot, but sometimes feels the need to change to manualcontrol to correct mistakes in God’s own design. Faith emphasizing miraclesis also problematic in pastoral and moral perspective. If God does anoccasional miracle, why not more often? Why not with this patient, thisfriend of mine, this suffering child? Why didn’t God push another sperm cellin the case of an Austrian couple at the end of the nineteenth century,giving them a daughter rather than their son Adolph? And if God canintervene to deflect evil, why would we then have to take responsibility?

Rather than building upon miracles and personal experiences one mightseek a firm basis in a book such as the Bible. But why not the Koran oranother ancient text? Confidence can also be placed in persons such asmartyrs, theologians of the early church, popes and bishops, teachers andmothers who have passed on the faith. Or gurus, masters and spiritualmediums. But why ascribe authority to this person rather than to that one?If I would have been born in India, wouldn’t I have had differentconvictions? Even within a single tradition opinions diverge. The Biblicalwritings are no unity, as became clear when they became the subject ofhistorical-critical investigation (see below, scene 9 [or the nextinstallment!]). Some stories were told in the palace or the temple, whereasothers were told among farmers or shepherds. We too make out of this’library’ our own selection; some parts we consider to be important, whileother texts are left in the background or read in a ‘creative’ way. Wecannot trust blindly books or people. We always have to face the question:’And why do you consider this wisdom?’

The exact sciences seem to offer more certainty. Once the mathematicsteacher has proved Pythagoras’ theorem (about the length of the hypotenuseof a rectangular triangle), the pupil seems to have no choice; whetherunderstood or not, whether they like it or not, the teacher is right.Theology has from time to time looked for secure support from the sciences.Some hope that cosmology offers an argument or even a proof for theexistence of God: there has been a beginning of the universe, any beginningneeds a cause, hence there is a cause surpassing the universe. However, sucha proof is not conclusive. As we have seen the concept of time isproblematic (scene 1 [not excerpted in Metaviews]), and thus the wholenotion of an absolute beginning and of anything preceding such a beginning.Such arguments also fail as they change domain, from explanations withinreality to a statement about the ground of being. The success of science ispaid for by a limitation of its ambitions. In my opinion the naturalsciences may point us towards limit questions, but they do not get us acrossthat boundary (scene 2 [see Metaviews 2001.12.18]).

Once upon a time there was a professor in theology who taught on theattributes of God, including the unknowable ones. Knowledge of theunknowable has not been granted to me; our knowledge does not reach that farand deep. That is a good thing. The pretension to know exactly what God islike and wants from us easily generates intolerance. Awareness that God, theGround of being, the absolutely good, is beyond our reach, may keep us fromfanaticism.

Rather than understanding theology as the science of God, claimingknowledge, some have argued that we should concentrate on our limitations.When we speak of God as ‘mystery’ we admit that we don’t have knowledge ofGod, while at the same time referring to God. That the sacred cannot bemeasured with any human measure, is pre-eminently a religious sensibility.To pretend to know God is the road to idolatry.

In the Bible the elusive, hidden character of God is considered at manyplaces. Jacob wrestled with a stranger when crossing the Jabbok [at Peniel](Genesis 32). They struggle during the night; the stranger cannot be seen indaylight and his name is not revealed. The Name that Moses hears at theburning bush, sometimes translated as ‘I am who I am’ (Exodus 3: 14), is nota metaphysical description. Rather, it expresses an expectation; it is alsoopen to the translation ‘I will be whom I will be’. At mount Sinai there isa reference to ‘a thick darkness where God was’ (Exodus 20: 21). No imagesof God were accepted in Israel. A man takes a piece of wood from the forest.’Half of it he burns in the fire; over half he eats flesh, he roasts meetand is satisfied; also he warms himself and says ‘Aha, I am warm, I haveseen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol; and fallsdown to it, and worships it; he prays to it and says ‘Deliver me, for thouart my god!” (Isaiah 44: 16-17). Thus, Isaiah exposes the foolishness offalling down before a block of wood – and we could extend that to humanimages. Nor is final wisdom to be found among humans; Only God ‘understandsthe way to it, and he knows its place’ (Job 28: 23); see also Proverbs 8 onwisdom’s affinity to God. Job places his hand on his mouth and is silent(40: 4f). Any human answer falls short; God is not according to humanimages. Job does not admit moral guilt but hubris that arose out of moralinnocence.

In Jesus too God’s presence is hidden and disputed. Is this the one wewere expecting? ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother ofJames and Josef and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’
(Mark 6: 3). He is unable even to come down from the cross. But then thereis a Roman officer who says ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (Marc 15:39) Of the Biblical God it can be said that as Lord he can be servant, insmallness great, in humiliation he shows his majesty.

These examples, which can be multiplied, show that there are many’negative’ moments in the Bible. They have to do with God’s unknowability,mystery and holiness. Among the prophets there is another motive as well,outrage at social injustice: ‘This cannot be God’s intention; God isdifferent’. The subsequent tradition does not live from a holy place whereGod is present, but from special moments of remembrance and expectation. TheSabbath recalls creation and anticipates its completion. In synagogue andchurch God’s great deeds are called into memory with an eye on the future.For Jews and Christians the presence of God became a matter of recollectionand hope, and thereby a matter of inner confidence, of faith. Life isoriented towards The Elusive Presence as the Biblical scholar Samuel Terrienexpressed it.

Later European critiques of too pretentious a religion could also appealto the Greek philosophers. Xenophanes (d. 470 BCE) wrote that if they could,horses and oxen would think of the gods as horses and oxen. Our images areculturally shaped and anthropomorphic. Mythological stories about the godsare not adequate. The divine principle is different from all mortals.According to Plato’s Apology Socrates was condemned to death since he didnot acknowledge the gods of the city. Where others held to convictions,Socrates posed questions.

Plato adds another step. Critical questioning brings him to the ideathat there must be a beginning, an arche from which everything springsforth. This theme is developed further in the neo-platonism of Plotinus. TheOne is beyond being. We can speak only of the One by denial, by negativepredicates, as unbounded, timeless, infinite. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewishthinker from the beginning of our Common Era, identifies ‘the One’ with theBiblical God.

Negative theology comes to a pinnacle in Christianity at the end of thefifth century with an author who is referred to as (pseudo) Dionysius theAreopagite. He wants to ascend from the image via the imageless to God. Theroad to God is not one of extrapolation but of denial, of abandoning ourimages and descriptions. With respect to the divine all negations are true,all affirmations are insufficient. The road aims via negation of allpositions at a position beyond all negations. Dionysius assumed ahierarchical view of the world. Again and again there was a higher level tobe reached by negating the lower one.

Just as in negative theology no answer is ever final, so too for thenatural sciences. With every answer we can pose new questions (scene 2 [SeeMetaviews 2001.12.18]). In this way we may argue that there is an open placein our view of the world. We should handle that open place, those limitquestions with care. If we draw images from our religious heritage to offeran explanation (God as ‘creator’) it may seem as if we claim to haveknowledge ‘beyond the knowable’. The platonic philosophers could do thatsince the assumed a framework which to them was obvious. We no longerpossess a generally accepted metaphysical framework of this kind; limitquestions do not automatically lead us to a reasonable basis for faith.

If a ‘science of God’ is beyond our reach, theology can be seen as the studyof religions as human phenomena. Such an understanding of theology cansatisfy ordinary criteria of academic life. One can study how religiousfestivals organize social life around sowing and harvesting, birth,adulthood and death. One can analyze how Roman emperors strengthened theirpower by presenting themselves as gods to be worshiped. Or pay attention tothe way reconciliation within a tribe is reinforced by rituals.Anthropologists and sociologists have studied many different cultures aroundthe world. The Western cultures included; we too have our myths and rituals,both old and new.

As said in the introduction, when myths are considered as claimsregarding that which once upon a time actually happened, they are ripe forthe dust bin or the museum. Myths and masks become curiosities from timeswhen ‘they did not know better’. If they are seen as early stages of scienceand philosophy, they are outdated in the light of modern science. However,anthropologists, sociologists and students of literature have long noticedthat a creation story is not merely about particular facts. These storiesreflect human fears, passion and aggression, power and order. Myths have anormative role; they structure society and guide the individual. In thissense, myths are what the Bible calls torah, essential instruction. Theanthropologist Clifford Geertz described a religion as ‘a systems of symbolswhich acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods andmotivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order ofexistence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of facticity thatthe moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic’. They are symbols andrituals motivating humans, and they achieve this by evoking certain ideasabout the most basic order of existence. The worldview has to be perceivedas rooted in ‘the way things are’, but the stories may well refer to thisorder indirectly, metaphorically. If the factual content of the stories issecondary to their guiding, comforting and life structuring function, weneed not ask whether Noah’s Ark was capable of holding all those animals andgo search for remains. The story of the Great Flood is not important as astory about the far past; it is important for us now as a story about theevil that we people do.

Theology as a science of God is beyond our grasp. Theology as ReligiousStudies is academically O.K. However, it has a major disadvantage – one’sown convictions can be left aside. One can study the opinions of a Christiantheologian of the third century, a heretic of the twelfth century, aBuddhist leader, a Siberian shaman or a leader of a tribe of nativeAmericans – and never speak about one’s own convictions. Thus, one wouldpass by the questions that make theology interesting and valuable. Questionsdirected at oneself: How do you see life? What is of ultimate value for you?Adam, Eve, where are you? Or, less individualistic: What kind of communitywould we like to be, what kind of society? I see theologies asinterpretations of existence with the help of particular religiousheritages. In such an interpretation of existence, normative and factualelements are combined, just as they were mixed in creation stories and othermyths.

When one articulates and justifies a particular interpretation ofexistence, issues of truth and of value are at stake. Debates about truthsurpass the boundaries of Religious Studies but still are academicallyrespectable. In considering the value of a particular tradition, theologygoes beyond the regular territory of academia, though it does so in the goodcompany of normative ethics, social philosophy and esthetics.

Typical of theologies, as systematic positions, seems to be that they offera particular view of the way the world is and a view of the way the worldshould be, thus of the True and the Good, of the real and the ideal. Eachtheology is a particular view of the relationship between a cosmology (inthe metaphysical sense as a view of the way the world is) and an axiology,that is, a view of the values that should be realized. In The Varieties ofReligious Experience, William James wrote about a century ago on thedifference ‘whether one accepts the universe in the drab discolored way ofstoic resignation to necessity, or with the passionate happiness ofChristian saints’: ‘At bottom the whole concern of both morality andreligion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we acceptit only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether? Shall ourprotests against certain things in it be radical and unforgiving, or shallwe think that, even with evil, there are ways of living that must lead togood?’

Thus, as a heuristic formulation that may help to clarify and explore acomplex area of discussion I suggest the ‘formula’:

a theology = a cosmology + an axiology

(with the + sign not being a mere addition, but hiding the crucial issue ofhow the two are brought together).

Theologies can be quite different in the way they relate cosmologicaland axiological aspects. One can have a scientistic ‘theology’ when on thebasis of explanatory insights, e.g. about the evolution of human behavior,one makes statements on the behavior we ought to display or the values thatwe should adhere to. Such a ‘theology’ is fully dominated by thecosmological pole. Or, to take a different example, when Fritjof Capra wrotein his book The Turning Point that inflation, unemployment and pollution’are all different facets of one and the same crisis, and that this crisisis essentially a crisis of perception’ which will be overcome in an’ecological perspective’, he implicitly offered a cosmology and axiology inone, namely the view that there are no genuine conflicts of interests in theworld, if we take the proper perspective. There is no tragic choice betweentwo evils, no falling short; essentially, it all is a crisis of perception,a matter of the way we see the world.

Within the Christian tradition, there are – upon my definition – varioustheologies. When the emphasis is on God’s saving activity, the tensionbetween the way the world is and the way it will be, is prominent, whereasin creation-oriented views (whether ecologically inspired or as naturaltheologies) cosmology and axiology stand less in contrast. The prophet mightemphasize the tension, whereas the mystic might stress the way we belong toreality.

The attempt to combine ‘is’ and ‘ought’ statements is what makestheology so problematical, so difficult and so valuable. This difficultyfinds again and again expression in the problem of evil, which typicallyconcerns the relationship or tension between the two main components. Suchan understanding of theology as ‘cosmology-and-axiology’ gives a particularrole to theology, while respecting the autonomy of science and also, lessopenly acknowledged, of moral discourse. It is in those domains that secularrationality has its primary rights.

Upon this view, one can distinguish between science and aninterpretation of science, which is a cosmology, metaphysics or philosophyof nature. A cosmology, in this sense, is a view of what the world (with itssubstances and relations, matter, forces and causality) might be like, givenwhat we know. Any such metaphysics is an interpretation of scientificknowledge, constrained but underdetermined by the sciences.

As far as religion is concerned, the definition places the emphasis onexistential issues which become prominent when our reality is not inagreement with what we think ought to be, rather than on supernatural ormagical elements which upset our understanding of the cosmology withouttaking into account the relationship with the axiological. Religion can thusbe thought about critically, not as being about that which upsets thecosmological order, but rather about the way convictions regarding valuesand facts are related – in harmony or in tension – even though theparticular existential view on ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ may well bebeyond rational defense.

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