Robert J Russell and relevance

This is probably my last post on Cosmology – from Alpha to Omega, and is essentially a footnote.


Chapter 9 begins to talk about eschatology, and makes this point:

In the theological research agendas of both Catholics and Protestants we find a renewal of eschatological thinking, foreseen by Karl Barth seventy years ago in the work which inaugurated the contemporary theological period, Der Romerbrief.

But then Russell says that theologians have failed to make eschatology, though hugely important, intelligible:

But in its ability to make eschatology intelligible to Christians and nonbelievers alike in an age which takes it for granted that our world is a tiny planet lost in the immensity of an unfeeling universe and that biological life is the unintended product of blind, evolutionary chance, we as theologians in the service of the church have failed.

He explains this partly by suggesting neglect – theologians just haven’t addressed eschatology, which is pretty obvious if if it’s taken seventy years for them to register interest in Barth’s allegedly seminal work. Who was listening to Barth if the theologians weren’t? Russell then points, as a mark of this failure, to the “obsession” of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists with dodgy eschatology over the last century in the wake of the Scofield Reference Bible and its Dispensational teaching.

Now I’d be the first to reject Dispensationalist eschatology and its variations, and very ready to call for serious work on the last things (though bright Conservative scholars like my Cambridge contemporary Richard Bauckham have been hard at work on it for years). But notice what is being said here. People find eschatology unintelligible because of science, and theologians haven’t faced the challenge of making it so. At the same time, the largest section of the US Church is “obsessed” with eschatology and finds it perfectly intelligible, even if they get it wrong and leave tensions with science unresolved.

In essence, what that means is that academic theology has been happy to make itself irrelevant to where Christians actually are, and all, it seems, in the name of making itself “relevant”. Isn’t that rather ironic?

This is, I’m afraid, evident throughout Russell’s own book. He spends much effort interacting with theologians he sometimes scarcely agrees with, but whose stars shine bright in the theological firmament. When he cites their ideas they are either so deep, or expressed so opaquely, that it is no wonder that the man in the pew can’t put the names to the stars. I suppose there is some trickle down effect, in that one can find faint traces of Barth or Tillich in some Sunday sermons, and some few theologians, like Moltmann, have probably been indirectly influential on popular theology even though not many laymen know their names. But it’s not quite the same as pastors flocking to Geneva from all over Europe to learn from Calvin, or Wesley getting stoned by Rentamob, though academics still often base their theological frameworks on these popular figures.

It is clear that if academic theology sees itself as the servant of the church, it often fails to equip itself with tools to be so. I was in a profession (medicine) in which, similarly to theology, academic excellence interfaced with ordinary human need. I was always acutely aware of a saying attributed, probably falsely, to Einstein that a theory that cannot be explained in strip-cartoon form probably isn’t true. Some of my more vernacular instructors warned us of the danger of disappearing up our own arses. Medicine that doesn’t connect to real people is not real medicine.

Perhaps the saddest demonstration of this with regard to Robert J Russell’s own field came home to me from reading a new thread about BioLogos on Uncommon Descent. The aim of the science and faith project is, it would seem, to make theology (not only eschatology) relevant to modern Christians and non-christians alike, in the light of the challenges of cosmology and evolution. There are relatively few academics in the field, but they have done sterling work, if not always orthodox – people like Russell himself, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne and Nancey Murphy. These are the people who have done serious work on theistic evolution on behalf of the church.

Maybe it’s not surprising they are not household names, with the exception of Polkinghorne, perhaps. But it’s a little disappointing that they, and their whole project, have scarcely affected BioLogos itself, where scientists and Christians are supposed to be meeting to work on these issues. Given the fact that their agenda has ramifications (and often criticisms of) Intelligent Design, the lack of interaction with that lobby in the pursuit is notable too.

Is this the fault, I wonder, of the theologians themselves, for becoming irrelevant in their academic quest for relevance? Or is it the recalcitrance of the ordinary masses in the lab and in the pew (“The People has failed us – we must elect a new People.”) Personally I’m not sure – I don’t overestimate the intelligence of the average Western citizen, but neither am I overawed by the excellence of the academic community. But maybe this little paragraph (from Cambridge, 1971) is food for thought:

And on the way to Caesarea Phillippi, Jesus asked his disciples; “Who do men say that I am?”
And Peter answered and said; “You are the eschatological realisation of the ground of our being, the kerygma manifested in the humanising process of conflict and decision.”
And Jesus said; “Wot?”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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