On Philosophical Quicksand

On Philosophical Quicksand

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Metanexus Sophia. 2004.03.03. 4,132 Words.

Do the logics of science and religion share the same grammar? Can we evaluate claims from each domain according to the same epistemological methods and principles? These are fundamental questions in the field of science and religion, and in the essay below, delivered at the AAR/SBL conference in Toronto in 2002, Taede A. Smedes considers these questions in his critique of James Hutchingson’s “Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God” (see https://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/tabid/72/Default.aspx?aid=230 for several excerpts from Hutchingson’s book). At the crux of Smedes’ critique is a problematization of constructing theological models based on scientific theory. Viewing science and religion as equally valuable ways of looking at the world, Smedes nevertheless takes issue with doing theology using scientific concepts and methods. In his words, “…indeed, this is like fighting the devil using black magic.”

“Taede Anne Smedes was born on July 3, 1973 in Drachten. He studied theology at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of Groningen University from 1992 until 1998. The title of his Master’s thesis was Between Order and Chaos: A Study about Order and Chaos, Worldviews, and God. From 1999 until 2003 he worked on a project investigating the relevance of chaos theory and complexity for models of divine action. The result is a dissertation with the title “Avoiding Balaam’s Mistake: Exploring Divine Action in an Age of Scientism” (which will be published later in 2004 with Peeters Publishers in the series “Studies in Philosophical Theology”). In 2001 he studied three months at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ with prof. dr. Wentzel van Huyssteen. In 2002 he won an ESSSAT Student Award for an article on determinism and the possibility of divine action (published in Zygon, December 2003). Since October 2002 he works with prof. dr. Willem B. Drees at the Faculty of Theology of Leiden University to develop an Internet-based introductory course in religion and science. Also, since February 2004 he works as a post-doc at the Faculty of Theology of Leiden University on a project investigating the regional and disciplinary variations in the theology and science dialogue. He also composes electronic music using synthesizers and computers. He lives with Jolanda and their strange cat Monster in Hillegom. His website can be found at: www.tasmedes.nl.”

— Editor



TAEDE A. SMEDES (Faculty of Theology, Leiden University, the Netherlands)

INTRODUCTION If one looks at the general character of contemporary books on religion and science, Huchingson’s book, Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God (1), stands out as rather peculiar in character. He does not argue for a specific position in the religion and science debate, nor does he argue for the compatibility of religion and science. Huchingson presupposes the compatibility of both, and his approach is one of integrating science and religion in an encompassing metaphysical framework. The magic word which is the key to unlock that framework is ‘chaos,’ or rather the Pandemonium Tremendum. The primordial chaos is the concept that connects being and God, that unites the metaphysical categories of being and becoming, and helps to explain the existence of our reality. Moreover, by referring to chaos, Huchingson’s metaphysical scheme resonates deeply with archetypical or even mythical images. Huchingson’s model is impressive for its epic character, yet one has to ask the crucial question: What is the point? This question must not be taken to downplay or ridicule Huchingson’s model in any way, but simply asks for the aim (telos) of the model. The question for the aim of Huchingson’s model will be the central focus of my paper, and I will return to it in the end.

OUTLINE OF HUCHINGSON’S BASIC IDEAS In the Preface to the book, Huchingson tells us that the book is “a study of the way things go and how they hang together and sometimes fall apart”(2). This should be taken as that Huchingson in this book attempts to provide an explanation for all that is, a “general description of the system of reality”(3). This description or explanation results in a theological model that uses concepts and ideas from computer science, information theory, and the sciences of self-organization. To be even more precise, it is a model of God, and of the relation between God and our universe. For it is God that is able to give intelligibility to the world (4). God is the ultimate explanation. Huchingson’s book is an intriguing narrative, for it reads like an epic which tells the story of how God and our universe came to be.

In Huchingson’s narrative it is not God that created the world, or at least not if one considers the concept of ‘creation’ as a specific theological concept pertaining to the creation ex nihilo. In Huchingson’s model, God let the universe come into existence from the primordial chaos through a process of filtration and communication. Once the universe took form, it was an over-against for God, limiting God’s presence and power. Huchingson describes this in terms of kenosis. The concept of kenosis only appears twice in Huchingson’s book, but it contains his whole model in a nutshell. It has a double function. First of all, kenosis is used to describe God’s action as the shielding off of creation from the otherwise overpowering and utterly destructive forces of chaos. It is the “divine kenotic act … to baffle the primordial chaos…”(5). On the other hand, kenosis functions to denote the fact that the world is not-God, that it is the result of an act of God to restrain himself out of love.

One can say that in a sense the kenotic God stands between the primordial chaos (which in its indifference to order would utterly ravish the universe until the primordial noise was restored) and our universe. No matter how vast our universe seems to be from our perspective, the universe is merely a minuscule island of relative order in the untamable ocean of chaos. And this ocean still threatens to dissolve whatever order there is. For one must understand that the primordial chaos is not vanquished. Not even God can vanquish the primordial chaos, though he is able to limit it and use it for creative as well as destructive purposes. God uses chaos to create novelty, but by either withdrawing creative noise or by allowing too much noise to enter the system in a destructive manner, God is also able to ‘punish’ creatures for their disobedience.

Huchingson uses the term ‘God’ casually, as if its meaning is clear from the outset. Moreover, he refers to biblical passages and to writings which have their place within the Christian tradition. By doing this he gives the idea as if his concept of God is compatible with or is in a direct line with the Christian tradition. In what follows, I will challenge that idea. I will focus on two aspects which are important in both Huchingson’s model and the Christian tradition: the concept of creation, and the concept of God’s personhood. These aspects will be related to what I take to be the central aspect of the Christian tradition: that God is God because God is worthy of worship (6).

CREATION In Huchingson’s model there is no creatio ex nihilo, at least not in the sense that everything-that-is ultimately has its origin in the Divine Being. In the Christian tradition creatio ex nihilo functions to warrant God’s sovereignty and omnipotence. God is independent, and what God creates is totally dependent on God. The aseitas Dei, that is, God’s independence interpreted as emphasizing the peculiar character of God in comparison with non-divine things, in the Christian tradition functions as a warrant for God’s worthiness of worship. A God who creates the world out of nothing is more worthy of worship than a God who, like a potter or a sculptor, depends on something existent to bring something else into existence. In the Christian tradition, therefore, the concept of God is deeply embedded in a context of worship. It is because of God’s worthiness of worship that dualism is rejected. For dualism endangers God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, and thereby God’s worthiness of worship. The production of a universe out of primordial chaos is an example of such a dualistic view. That such a view is attractive is not surprising, for primordial chaos can easily be related to, and serve as an explanation for the existence of evil (7).

It is not instantly clear whether or not Huchingson’s view is dualistic. Sometimes he describes the primordial chaos as being ‘incorporated’ by God, but other passages suggest that chaos ‘acts’ independent of God. On pp. 129-137 he even opts for a controversial view of God being a product of the primordial chaos as well, so that God is “the self-conditioning primordial derivative of that chaos”(8). Yet, in reading Huchingson’s book, I got the impression that actually the primordial chaos is more powerful than God. God, in Huchingson’s model, merely serves to protect the orderly creation from chaos’s overwhelming and therefore destructive powers. Without chaos, God would not exist (for God constituted Godself from the chaos), and God would not be able to give this universe its existence. In a sense then, the chaos is more powerful than God is, and without it, we would not be here, so that, eventually, the primordial chaos is more worthy of worship than God is. It is the Pandemonium Tremendum (et Fascinans I would add, reminiscent of Rudolf Otto) that should be called ‘God.’

Thus, I believe that Huchingson’s model exemplifies that dualistic mode of thinking that the Christian tradition tried to expel, for God is robbed of God’s worthiness of worship if God becomes dependent on something. Unlike in the Christian tradition, in Huchingson’s model, God is not totally in control of the chaos from which God emerged. Because in Huchingson’s model Godself is a product of the primordial chaos, there comes into play a reversal of values that results in a deification of the primordial chaos. Thus, in my view Huchingson here is at odds with the Christian tradition.

DIVINE PERSONHOOD Another element of the Christian concept of God is that of God’s personhood. Of course, God does is not depicted as having a corporeal body, but underlying Christian conceptions of the personalness of God is the idea that it is not inappropriate to speak of God in personal terms, i.e. using personal language. But what does talking about God’s personalness imply? What makes us say that someone is a person, or, in other words, what makes us use personal language when referring to God? Huchingson defines a person as follows: “A person is an agent who manages variety through self-conscious decision processes”(9). Personhood, for Huchingson, comes down to the possession of certain cognitive abilities. But that is not all. A second aspect of personhood is that there must be an other, something which stands over against God. This ‘over-against’ in Huchingson’s model is the universe. The universe functions as the other to which God responds. These are all elements that resonate with concepts from the Christian tradition, and make it seem as if Huchingson is compatible with the Christian tradition.

Yet the critical question comes down to application. How is the concept of divine personhood applied in Huchingson’s model? Take the concept of providence. The concept of providence has always been closely connected to the concept of divine personhood. To say that God is personally related to the world, implies that there is an interaction between creatures and God. Speaking about God’s intentional actions (such as creating the world), entails using a concept of God as personal. God’s personhood and his providential activity are two sides of the same coin. So we might take providence as a test-case. Note, again, that the concept of personhood in the Christian tradition is connected to God’s worthiness of worship. Personhood implies relationality. If one can develop a relation with a responding person, this is more highly valued than developing a relation to something that does not respond. If God were a machine, rather than a person, then God would not evoke our respect and would not be worthy of worship (10). Worship is thus, at least in the Christian tradition, intimately connected to relationality between the One who is worshipped, and the one who worships. Personhood and divine action thus are also deeply entrenched in the context of personal relationships.

In what sense does Huchingson’s model express this element of personal relationship? In biblical texts God’s relationality is spoken of (positively) as caring for God’s beloved or chosen ones, or (negatively) as punishing those who do not follow God’s commands. Personal language abounds, even to the limit of anthropomorphizing God. But compare now Huchingson’s description of divine providence: “The release of variety into the world is exclusively through God as the channel of its flow. The effects of this flow are proportional to its intensity”(11). God’s providence is in essence described using a mechanistic metaphor, viz. that of fluid flow. Intentionality is linked to the intensity of the flow, and this works in either a positive (sustaining) or negative (destructive) way. Can one worship a channel for creative noise? Sometimes, but very minimally (it doesn’t even appear in the index), Huchingson uses the word ‘love’ to describe God’s relation to the world (12). Yet nowhere does he speak about what love means in his model and how God loves. Can a channel for variety love?

In my view, Huchingson’s inconsistency in speaking about a personal God is rooted in his intention to use computer metaphors to speak about the connection between God, chaos and the universe (13). Using computer metaphors prohibits one of using personal language, for a computer is no person. The metaphor of communication seems more promising, but because of Huchingson’s mechanistic or cybernetic interpretation of communication theory, we become again entangled in mechanistic descriptions (14). Huchingson’s descriptions of God as a kybernetes may sound personalistic, except that in information theory a kybernetes is nothing but a function or an apparatus (such as a thermostat), but not a real person. So, here too I conclude that by using personalistic language about God inconsistently Huchingson is at odds with the Christian tradition.

THE BASIC ISSUE: PRIORITIZING SCIENTIFIC RATIONALITY (SCIENTISM) At least with regard to the concept of creation and the concept of divine personhood, Huchingson does not conform to the Christian modes of speaking about God and God’s relation with this universe. I do not believe for a second that this was Huchingson’s intention, but I do believe it is a consequence of his model which is related to his initial aim. I believe that Huchingson’s aims for developing his metaphysical model were none other than apologetic. ‘Apologetic’ in the sense that he wants to develop an adequate theological model for an era in which scientific rationality rules supreme. In the beginning of his book Huchingson points out how he believes theology should be consonant with scientific models: a theology should connect at a fundamental level with the findings of science – and I believe this is the telos of his book. To make the connection between theology and science, Huchingson uses metaphors from communication theory. However, from the foregoing analysis it should be clear that this leads to some theologically unwelcome consequences.

In my view, these unwelcome consequences result from a confusion which is deeply anchored in our Western, post-Enlightenment intellectual tradition. This is that theology should conform to the standards of rationality inherent to science. The standards of rationality are taken as a priori validated, because of the long-standing scientific tradition, or because of the explanatory success of scientific theories, or for whatever reason. Scientific rationality still is the standard for rationality as such. As a consequence, theological claims should conform to those scientific standards. Mikael Stenmark in his most recent book has analyzed the roots and consequences of this view we call scientism (15). Sometimes scientism is taken to be an explicit position adopted proclaiming the intellectual superiority of science, but it goes much deeper than that. I believe our whole Western culture is drenched with many tacit scientistic assumptions and presuppositions which not only distort the popular view of what science is and what scientists do, but moreover distort our view of religion and religious utterances.

One of those scientistic assumptions is that the language of religion is on the same level as scientific language. Thus, if theologians speak about the existence of God, this is taken to mean basically the same as scientists speaking about the existence of e.g. black holes or atoms. A similar confusion underlies Huchingson’s model (and, I believe, many other theological proposals to reconcile religion and science)(16). Huchingson assumes that concepts from communication theory can be imported into a theological context without losing their meaning – which implies that theological and scientific language are on the same level, or share a similar grammar. In other words, due to scientistic assumptions, it is assumed that the logic of religion is similar or identical to the logic of science. Connected to this similarity in logic there is a second assumption: that religion provides explanations, similar to scientific explanations. For that reason Huchingson’s model purports to be an explanatory model (17).

If it is true that the logic of religion is similar to the logic of science, and if it is true that scientific rationality has an a priori intellectual superiority over other forms of rationality, then indeed it is legitimate and even necessary to develop theological models which are in consonance with science. But then, science should be taken seriously to the utmost limit, and Huchingson should at least take the concept of self-organization seriously. In his model he barely refers to the possibility explored by scientists such as Prigogine, Stuart Kauffman, and many others, that chaos could lead to spontaneous order. For if that would be the case, the concept of God would lose its explanatory function. God would drop out of the picture. Huchingson senses this possibility on page 222, where he writes: “Perhaps God could be eliminated altogether … in which case the Pandemonium Tremendum would bear exclusive responsibility for the creation. Unless, however, our basic concept of a dynamic primordial chaos that consumes its own offspring worlds is drastically altered, this opinion has little viability”(18). If self-organization is taken seriously, the explanatory concept of God becomes superfluous. But this is only true if the logics of religion and of science are similar.

However, I would like to challenge the idea that religion and science are logically compatible. As was indicated in my analysis of Huchingson’s ideas about creation and divine personhood, talking about God entails a different style of thinking than the scientific style. For instance, praying to God as “our Father, who art in heaven …” does not imply that there is a mother involved, or even that there is a biological relationship between God and humans. Quite on the contrary: it expresses a relational attitude of believers towards God. It would be a category mistake to ask for God’s wife, as this is not part of the religious perspective. Similarly, speaking about God in personal terms does not imply that God has a corporeal body, but is an expression of the view that God’s actions are not random but intentional, analogous to intentional human actions. That God created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo) does not mean that there was some stuff called nothing, or in Huchingson’s case an almost indescribable chaos, but expresses the view that however this world came to be, it is seen to be totally dependent on God who is dependent on nothing. Contrary to what Huchingson and many others in religion and science seem to believe, religion is not about ultimate explanations of the existence of the universe, but all about worship. As a consequence, the logics of religion and of science are not isomorphic but very different indeed.

The reasons for the tacit scientism in our Western intellectual culture are not easy to identify(19). Yet it is very pervasive, and basically influences our entire worldview. Some philosophers, such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger, acknowledged the influence of such scientism (even though they did not call it ‘scientism’), and argued that it leads to a loss of meaning in certain ways. That many people are of the opinion that religion has no longer any connection with real life, that religion is merely a pastime, and that religion is relegated to the outer rims of our culture, all these influences can be correlated with the rise of scientific and technological modes of thinking. For theology a false task lies in constructing models based on scientific theory –
indeed, this is like fighting the devil using black magic. I believe that the better task for theologians is to attempt at elucidating the logic and grammar of religion, thereby showing people that there are other, equally valuable ways of looking at the world, without reducing meaning to that which is scientifically meaningful.

CONCLUDING SUMMARY Summarizing, I believe that Huchingson’s approach is in itself highly interesting for its epic proportions, but I believe it to be fundamentally flawed. Huchingson’s answers to religious questions come from a scientific perspective. As such they do not, and logically cannot, answer the religious questions people ask. Moreover, by adopting such a scientific perspective we distort religious concepts by interpreting them as if they were scientific concepts and can be dealt with in a scientific manner. Furthermore, as I have tried to make clear by analyzing Huchingson’s ideas of creation and divine personhood, such a procedure could easily result in theological tensions or even inconsistencies. Finally, such an approach makes theology dependent on scientific theory. The latter is highly liable to change, which can make the former implausible or even redundant. What we need to make clear is that theology is not science, that God is no scientific explanation, and that creation or providence are not scientific theories. The task of theology in an age of scientific rationality is then not a matter of revising the answers (i.e. adapting theological doctrine according to scientific standards), but asking the right questions in the first place.



2 HUCHINGSON 2001, vii.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 37.

5 Ibid., 129.

6 See on the matter of God’s worthiness of worship: VAN DEN BROM 1993, 8ff. Cf. also PETERSON, ET AL., 1991, 50f.

7 In that sense, Huchingson’s model is compatible with Sjoerd Bonting’s. Bonting also rejects the creatio ex nihilo and opts for a creation out of chaos. Evil in the world is then ’caused’ by remnants of the primordial chaos. See for more details BONTING 2002.

8 HUCHINGSON 2001, 142, emphasis mine.

9 Ibid., 186.

10 Cf. VAN DEN BROM 1993, 37.

11 HUCHINGSON 2001, 203. Emphasis mine.

12 I was only able to find three passages on pages 177, 187, and 222f.

13 Cf. ibid., 39.

14 In other words, as the German mathematician Marco Wehr writes, Shannon’s concept of information is not appropriate to describe human forms of communication; cf. WEHR 2002, 57.

15 STENMARK 2001.

16 In the research for my forthcoming dissertation I was also able to identify similar scientistic assumptions in the theological models of John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke.

17 In fact, Huchingson’s explanatory model is a candidate for the most encompassing explanation conceivable, for it not only explains the existence and structure of the universe in terms of a divine communication process, but Huchingson’s model even explains the existence of God as the emergence out of the primordial chaos.

18 HUCHINGSON 2001, 222.

19 See for some historical and philosophical analyses: DUPR… 1993 and PLACHER 1996.


BONTING, S.L. 2002: Chaos Theology: A Revised Creation Theology. Ottawa: Novalis.

DUPR…, L. 1993: Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

HUCHINGSON, J. E. 2001: Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press.

PETERSON, M. W. HASKER, B. REICHENBACH, AND D. BASINGER 1991: Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

PLACHER, W.C. 1996: The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

SMEDES, T.A. forthcoming: Avoiding Balaam’s Mistake: Exploring Divine Action in an Age of Scientism. Doctoral dissertation, Groningen University 2004.

STENMARK, M. 2001: Scientism: Science, Ethics and Religion. Aldershot, etc.: Ashgate.

VAN DEN BROM, L.J. 1993: Divine Presence in the World: A Critical Analysis of the Notion of Divine Omnipresence. Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House.

WEHR, M. 2002: Der Schmetterlingsdefekt: Turbulenzen in der Chaostheorie. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

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