It has been a while, I might note, since I have worked through a book, chapter-by-chapter. Even though no one has been clamoring for it, they ought to have been, and so here I am with another one. The book I have selected was just released by HarperOne, and is N.T. Wright’s latest — Surprised By Scripture. The format of the book — an assembly of edited lectures around various topical themes (the subtitle is “Engaging Contemporary Issues”) — lends itself to my approach here. Each chapter stands alone, and so each installment of mine will similarly stand alone.
The first chapter is on the relationship of faith and science. In his treatment of this subject, Wright says some things that are really insightful, and he says some other things that are hopelessly confused. And on that note, let me declare my intentions early on. What I want to do, working through this book, is give credit where credit is due (and there look to be chapters where I will largely be a cheerleader), and to cut no slack where slack oughtn’t be cut (for there look to be chapters, like this one, where he gets the essential point upside down).
His basic argument in this chapter is that the modern world is in thrall to an updated form of Epicureanism, and that this causes us to misunderstand the nature of faith/science integration. He wants us to undergo a “radical rethink” of the whole debate, instead of focusing on what side of the debate (in the older forms of it) that we think we are on.
Another related problem he addresses, albeit not so directly, is this one: “what shall we do about the Americans?”
“I want to point out that the way the science and religion debate is conducted and perceived in North America is significantly different from the ways analogous debates are conducted and perceived elsewhere” (p. 2).
This is quite true, but there is perhaps another explanation than the one he provides. But before getting to that, here is his statement on that same matter that I think is quite insightful.
“The cultural polarization in American society, including the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the first half of the twentieth century, has roots that go back at least as far as the Civil War in the 1860s” (p. 4).
I think this is right on the money, and it is closely related to the broader culture war issues, as Wright points out elsewhere in this chapter. There are many battles, but there is only one war. Wright and I look at the same phenomenon, and we both agree that it is occurring. But he feels sorry for us, and I don’t.
“This is why I say that, though of course the issues have been important elsewhere in the world, Americans seem to have had a particularly hard time of it” (p. 5)
“The present American context, which reflects these culture wars in newer forms, makes these issues much harder for Americans to deal with than they are for the rest of us” (p. 6).
But there is another way to take all this. I certainly do agree that there is an ongoing fight over these things in America that we do not see elsewhere. But mightn’t it be because American Christians have not surrendered, and are still fighting? Of course the struggle is harder for a soldier who is still being a soldier. The fight is difficult for those who didn’t quit the difficulty. That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Wright says that these things are “much harder” for us. He says we have had a “particularly hard time of it.” Okay. But Paul told Timothy to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3).
Of course, there is such a thing as unnecessary hardship. There is faithfulness hard, and there is stupid hard (Prov. 13:15). So the question then becomes whether we American Christians are having a hard time because of our hard heads, or whether we are having a hard time because the hardness in question is in our backbone. To determine that we need to move to consider the rest of Wright’s discussion.
Wright then moves to a very helpful discussion of Epicureanism, and he shows how the whole modernity project is simply Epicureanism 2.0. This whole section is very good, but after he rode this bike around the block several times, he unfortunately started to wobble.
He quotes philosopher Catherine Wilson to the effect that in the modern world we are all Epicureans now. Wright then adds, “It is the default mode, sadly, for most Christians who oppose modern science science as well as for scientists who oppose modern Christianity” (p. 11).
Wait, what? This is absolutely the kind of thing you need an argument for. But not only does Wright make the assertion without an argument, he does so with the calm serenity of Gautama looking at an ant war. But if Epicureanism is “no gods or absent gods,” then you cannot just say that those who espouse this are Epicureans, “not to mention those who hotly oppose it.” By this handy device I could prove that Robert E. Lee fought for the North.
If I had to guess at what argument he might make, I would have to reconstruct it from a few bits and pieces he left for us here and there. For example, he says: “That is why, I think, some of those who insist on God’s actions in creation and providence, who see him as a God who is essentially outside the whole process and who reaches in, despite the Epicurean prohibition, and does things for which there was otherwise no cause, sound quite shrill” (pp. 15-16).
While he does grant that those who deny Epicureanism are not Epicureans in the technical sense, he still argues that “in science/religion debates or evolution/creation debates, it is all too easy for the scientists or evolutionists to state their position in Epicurean terms, and for the Christians or creationists to follow suit” (p. 14, emphasis his).
By this he appears to mean that if Christians believe in a “supernatural” realm, across which God reaches, even if He reaches across it every minute of every day, they have ceded way too much to their adversaries. Wright dismisses “supernaturalists who want to make him [Jesus] the divine ‘invader’ from ‘beyond,’ performing miracles to prove his supernatural power and summoning us to leave this world and return with him to his. These pictures simply reflect the false either/or of Epicureanism” (p. 23).
He complicates things further because, near the bottom of page 14, he makes a frightful muddle of the definition of miracles and providence. In Scripture, God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Christ is the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:18). Not only did He create the world ex nihilo, but He also sustains it in existence every moment “by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). God is not absent or distant. But despite my high Calvinism with regard to numbered hairs and fallen sparrows, and the stray leaf skittering down the street in the autumn breeze, its every turn foreordained before all worlds, I would say this robust view of God’s ongoing providence must leave room for God acting in ways that have no antecedent secondary causes in the created order. Take the Incarnation, for example. That was God reaching in from outside. Creatio ex nihilo reaches from outside, by definition.
Now suppose Wright is simply wanting to deny the notion that most things run by impersonal natural law, but that when God reaches in and does something direct, “it’s a miracle.” If that is all he is saying, then he is correct. The only problem then would be that it would be an annoying instance of Wright’s habit of acting like he has discovered distinctions that have been theological commonplaces for centuries. He is like an astronomer who has been working on his telescope (quite ably) for decades, but who keeps claiming to have discovered the moon. We could let that go, but he keeps trying to name it. But other people, turns out, have telescopes too, and some people have noticed the moon without any formal training at all. He is like the man in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, concerning whom Johnson said that he sat down to write a book, in which he told the world a number of things which the world had been, all his life, trying to tell him.
The biblical stance is that God sustains everything we see in nature, and sometimes He performs “signs” that cannot be accounted for by means of antecedent causes in providence.
Having identified the enemy as Epicureanism, he wants to show some fight, but apparently without any actual fighting. If you start actually fighting, someone might mistake you for an American.
“Once we recognize the deep-rooted Epicureanism of much of modern Western culture, our vocation as Christian thinkers is not to make an easy, compromising peace with it but to discern how to restate and reinhabit a genuinely Christian worldview in its place” (p. 18).
I would suggest that there is absolutely no way to do this while retaining the respect of the Epicurean establishment. And that means you have to be willing to be called a fundamentalist.
“And this means that everything we might say about the relationship between heaven and earth, between God and the world, between faith and science, between piety and public life — all those analogous questions that have so baffled Western modernism — find their answer in Jesus” (p. 22).
I am not about to argue with that, at least not with the Jesus part, but I do want to conclude by pointing out a problem with one of the phrases — “faith and science.”
All those pairs but one are what they are. Heaven and earth, God and the world, piety and public life. And I agree with Wright that they can only be brought together in a coherent whole through Jesus. A thousand amens.
But “faith and science” is a pair not like the other pairs. Faith in what? Which science? Those are two bottles that can be filled with any number of fluids, and I want to know what those fluids are before I start trying to integrate anything. “Science” contains conclusions, doctrines. Scientists teach certain things, and they do in the name of science. So before I try to harmonize anything, I want to ascertain that what I am harmonizing my scriptural understanding with is actually true. I am prepared to harmonize my views of Scripture with the germ theory of disease. I am not prepared to harmonize my views of Jesus walking on water with a doctrine that says such things never happen. But both are advanced with the embossed seal of “The Science Is Settled” on them. Shoot, things are so crazy these days that this thing called “climate change” has even gotten that seal.
This is why reconciling “faith and science” is like taking on the task of reconciling “faith and stuff taught in books.”