Wrestling with the divine: religion, science, and revelation

  1. Lemma
  2. Wrestling with the divine: religion, science, and revelation
  3. English
  4. Tampakis, Kostas
  5. Modes of interaction - Concepts of knowledge and modes of reasoning
  6. 8-10-2018
  7. Knight, Christopher [Author]. Wrestling with the divine: religion, science, and revelation
  8. Wrestling with the divine: religion, science, and revelation
  9. panentheism - Christian Revelation - rationalism
    1. This book’s author, Christopher Knight is also one of the few scholars to have persistently and authoritatively considered the relations between Orthodoxy and science over the course of almost twenty years. However, this book is written before Dr. Knight became an Orthodox priest. It remains one of the most influential treatises of its kind within Orthodoxy and the sciences dialogue. The book is divided into eleven chapters, with a preface and an afterword, for a total of 146 pages, plus xiv in the preface.

      The preface itself details the reasons that led the author to undertake the creation of the book, and state his intention to choose a plain, accessible style of writing of brevity rather over an extensive and technical treatment of the issues. The following first chapter is devoted to an introductory discussion on science and theology in dialogue. The author discusses some of the ideas of Polkinghorne, Torrance and Peacocke, among others, and argues that theologians have been very reluctant to tackle the subject, partly due to the expertise needed and partly due to a lukewarm reception of revised ‘natural theology’ arguments. In the end, the author finds their emphasis on the immanence of God in creation the most fruitful for further elaboration. Chapter two articulates the basic characteristics of what the author calls sacramental panetheism. Again based on the works of Peacocke and Polkingorne, Knight describes how a non-interventionist, naturalistic account of divine actions can be articulated to show how humans can emerge from natural processes. In that regard, a distinction between providential and creative action becomes important.

      Chapter three discusses an incarnationist approach to the miracle of the resurrection. After describing historical, psychoanalytical and anthropological approaches to resurrection, the author turns to an ‘incarnationist’ approach, where  human nature and culture are seen as the ‘locus and focus’ of Christ’s saving act. From Louis Buyer to  Karl Rahner, several such approaches are discussed, and a spectrum of possible relations to the problem of naturalistic divine action are shown. However, the chapter ends with a node towards a possible extension where the experience is seen as having real content. Thus, the question of what constitutes an authentic visionary experience arises. The next chapter, chapter four then asks how the authenticity of a particular religious experience may be ascertained. It firstly notes the similarity of the problem of which experience is authentic with the reductionistic approaches many scientific disciplines adopt qua other disciplines. While total reductionism would be very hard to reconcile with theology, the author notices how antireductionism also carries its own dangers. That theological experiences are not reducible to psychology does not mean that psychology plays no role at all. What makes theology appropriate as an explanatory discipline for religious experiences? The doctrinal theory that the author turns to answer this question, lies in chapter five.

      Chapter five begins with a distinction between revelation and special revelation, the latter signifying the psychological understanding of revelatory experience. Thus, it is tied to the notion of natural religion, the idea that humans, by divinely willed nature, have a degree of knowledge of God, or the capacity for such. The chapter then discusses the notion, initially to be found in the Biblical Theology movement, of ‘revelation in history’. Since the notion was also tied to positivistic takes on science, the author then discusses the rise and fall of positivistic philosophies of science, up to an including Kuhnian critiques of them. The author is also critical of postmodern antifoundational attempts, but he recognizes the important insights often by middle-ground scholars, such as Barbour and  Huyssten. The chapter ends by appropriating the Barbourian notions of fertility, coherence and scope as components for a view of the role of theological language that will be proposed later on.

      Chapter six tackles the question of a richer notion of human rationality, as it could stem from a postfoundational approach to rationality. It aims to tackle revelation as ‘data’. Knight discusses how data is seen in science and how it could be seen in theology, even if we move away from a naively positivistic notion of physics as the science par excellence. One main difference would be that revelationary experience are not automatically taken to refer at an outside reality, irrispective of the observer. A way out of the impasse would be to consider a revelationary experience by also considering a mature psychological component for the experience, one grounded both in evolutionary and historico-cultural dimensions. Such a revelation would be seen as having eschatological and  salvatory orientations. Revelations then should be expected to be, and must be interpreted to be, nonrational visionary experiences. The author names it a psychological-referential model of revelatory experience , and it naturally leads to a discussion of theological language.

      Chapter seven attempts to discuss the puzzle-solving nature of theological language. The author rightfully acknowledges that theological language has been at the heart of theological considerations for some time, especially after a quasi-Popperian view of theology as a model of reality became popular. Philosophical conceptions of scientific inquiry, such as critical realism and science as puzzle solving are then discusses as possible fruitful contributions to theology. The author argues that in many historical periods and in many theological problems, theology had indeed partaken of ‘problem-solving’, if understood correctly. Moreover, there has been a confluence of Orthodox theology and western existentialism for some decades now, which has enabled theologists to sue docrine with the same assurance that scientists use scientific theories. In fact, the author suggests that if theology is to function as  a true puzzle solving activity, and thus mirror scientific practice, then it needs to be, paradoxically, conservative when radical changes are imminent. The questions best suited to be tackled by a theology seen as puzzle-solving, the author suggests, are exactly those relevant to a science-religion dialogue, and it is to those that chapter eight is devoted.

      Chapter eight begins by briefly considering A. Torrance’s and J. Polkinghorne’s proposals for theologies of nature, viewed in the light of a puzzle-solving theology. The author briefly discusses their strengths and their weaknesses, before moving on towards the task of developing a Christian’s inherited theological framework consonant with modern scientific perceptions of natural processes. He seems to suggest that any such proposal must satisfy Kuhnian criteria of theory succession. Specifically, he calls for both a consideration of incommensurability between successive theories and of a correspondence between the new and the old. It must be noted that the author does not seem to analyze the obvious stress between these criteria that the invocation of Kuhn entails. He also seems to construe incommensurability in a very different way than most Kuhnian proponents would allow. In any case, he then goes on to recast Peacocke’s sacramental pantheism through such a prism. The chapter ends with a  clear recasting of the argument under discussion: A methodological prescription for theology based on postfoundational philosophy of science can provide general criteria for the development of an applicable to the subject theological language. Such a theology, based firmly on a conservative view of the revelatory and saving acts of God in Christ, can enter in a puzzle-solving dialogue with scientific and other secular disciplines. For the other themes already discussed, such as the role of psychology in examining revelatory experiences, to emerge, a modicum of realism is needed. Thus, chapter nine is dedicated to realism. It discusses various realistic philosophies of science that have been proposed, from Kripke to Hesse. The author settles in structural realism as a defensible position, and he sets on harnessing its power to create a suitable language of theology, in chapter ten.

      Chapter ten is devoted to tracing the antecedents of structural realism’s application to theology. The author considers how theologians like Soskice, Lossky and Boyde have discussed structural realism. He also notes that interfaith discussions may be ‘the crucible in which structural realism can be forged’. After a detailed discussion, the chapter concludes that the adoption of critical realism in theology is in itself without problems. Nevertheless, it argues that an understanding of structural realism in science may provide the basis for a realist understanding of religious language suitable for a pluralistic age.

      The final eleventh chapter brings all the elements of the book together. It suggests a psychological-referential model of revelatory experience for understanding the nature of revelation. Its great strength would best could provide an adequate theology for the world’s faiths.  It also brings to the fore the link between cultural expectations and the psychologically-rooted revelatory experience. The author also argues for a pluralistic approach to interfaith dialogue as essential. In fact, revelation can be best understood in a psycho-biological way, as multiform, which will adapt to different cultures. It will remain however an emergent intrinsic to sacramental potential. The book ends with an afterword.