A guy calling himself “Francis” over on BioLogos took it into his head to get personally insulting in reply to one of my now infrequent posts there. I’ve neither the time nor patience to tease out exactly where he’s coming from – I think it’s blind literalism of the order “If the KJV was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me” type. But it may be Tridentine Catholicism, or even Pentecostal “Only those baptized with the Spirit know God’s will, and they always agree with me.” Plain trollery is another possibility, but whatever the motivation he was quick to play, unsolicited, the old “plain folks versus hifalutin’ college boys” card. Ten years plus in pastoral ministry taught me to refuse to play that game. But one thing he wrote is a useful starting point for me here:
“How would you value the theological opinion of a blue-collar fisherman versus that of a highly-educated/trained theology teacher (i.e. Pharisee)?”
The one-line answer is that anyone who does a three year full time theology course with Jesus is no longer just a blue-collar fisherman, if he ever was just that. But the truth hidden in the question (usually just as applicable to the homespun types as to the graduates they despise) is that with Jesus, theology and religion were indistinguishable.
That wasn’t the case with the Pharisaic opponents of Christ, and it often isn’t the case today. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing of itself, but can become so.
In Gregory’s recent thread on Uncommon Descent, in which he argues the case for his “Human Extension” concept, Steve Fuller says this:
Like Gregory, I draw a strong distinction between religion and theology. Religion is about faith and ritual, which is fine but not especially relevant to science. Theology, however, is a different matter because when it is not ashamed of itself (i.e. not following Karl Barth) it aims to provide an account of God as an explanatory principle of the highest order.
This is a distinction which, like methodological naturalism, can be unpacked usefully but is liable to be taken too far. As far as Intelligent Design goes, viewing that purely as a natural theology project, I wouldn’t really deny its truth. As I wrote to penman here natural theology always leads to Romans 1, and by implication never beyond it. That theology which approaches God (even via the Bible) as an explanatory principle is a parallel project to the disciplines of science and philosophy as properly pursued, that is, in order to think God’s thoughts after him. In other words, all the “ologies” have as their aim the discovery of what we can know of God and his works by our natural faculties. This was succinctly shown by this 1980s TV ad by Maureen Lipman:
If you’ve got an ology, you’re a scientist. And the pursuit of knowledge becomes your governing principle. The difference between an ology and religion is demonstrated by their response to paradox. A scientist qua scientist, who finds an anomaly in his work, will look for a fault in his data or theory. A philosopher finding an anomaly in his will look for a fault in his reasoning. A theologian will look for a fault in textual understanding, or in the modern discipline, a fault in the text itself (though of course, much of the kind of theology Steve Fuller refers to in his comment is actually philosophy with God as subject). In all cases, the increase of reliable knowledge is the aim. If we have a right view of God, our explanatory principle will be sound and our explanations of (in ID’s case) the natural world more reliable.
But Blaise Pascal, a philosopher himself, famously found that God far transcended what could be deduced about him, and left this memorial:
The year of grace 1654,
Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.
Actually what prompted this blog was a mild reflection I had whilst reading Isaiah 63, in which God speaks of his distress and grief at Israel’s situation. I mused on how such passages have led to arguments with the scholastic concept of an unmoved mover. But I also considered how the Bible itself – even Isaiah – has passages in which God denies being subject to human passions, so simply viewing Yahweh as a volatile Spirit with emotions like ours won’t do either. The theological answers (in the “ology” sense of removing anomalies) have recourse to analogy, accommodation to human minds, accommodation by human minds, religious polemic or plain inconsistency on the writers’ part. And study of these has a real place, because Biblical religion calls us to use our whole being, including our intellect, in his service. It’s valid to do science, and philosophy, and theology – provided we recognise their limitations.
After all, science seldom, if ever, delivers truth that remains unchanged for all time. Philosophy too will never deliver reliable truth until every philosopher is convinced by one argument – which isn’t going to happen any time soon. Likewise theology, even as the “queen of sciences”, can rise no higher than the human minds that do it.
Religion, on the other hand, by which I mean you to understand revealed, saving truth rather than C S Lewis’s less flattering definition of empty religion opposed to “mere Christianity”, has as its final response to paradox the simple taking of God at his word. There is a recognition that we live in a partial revelation which cannot be guaranteed to resolve all we want to know even about the world, let alone about God himself. Present reality is two-fold – that which we can know, and that which God reserves to his own counsel. The truly religious response to that is a most non-ological acceptance. As the Deuteronomist wrote:
The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29.29).
The last clause gives the key to this acquiescence – the core of relationality in faith. Knowledge is not the final aim, but covenant relationship with God. That also is the key to that passage in Romans 1, though it’s usually elided in discussions about the scope of natural theology. For verse 21 shows that the “innate” knowledge of God given to mankind through his works was not intended to give evidence for belief in God, but matter for worship:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Note that futility and darkness are opposed here not to atheism, but to failure of appreciation, or in other words worship. Whatever else imago dei means, it encompasses primarily the priestly function of bringing acceptable worship to God on behalf of the creation that is revealed by all the ologies. It is not simply belief in God as an explanation: even the demons believe that – and shudder.