Alvin Plantinga has cited this quote from Langdon Gilkey more than once in connection with divine action:
[C]ontemporary theology does not expect, nor does it speak of, wondrous divine events on the surface of natural and historical life. The causal nexus in space and time which the Enlightenment science and philosophy introduced into the Western mind is also assumed by modern theologians and scholars; since they participate in the modern world of science both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else. Now this assumption of a causal order among phenomenal events, and therefore of the authority of the scientific interpretation of observable events, makes a great difference to the validity one assigns to biblical narratives and so to the way one understands their meaning. Suddenly a vast panoply of divine deeds and events recorded in scripture are no longer regarded as having actually happened Whatever the Hebrews believed, we believe that the biblical people lived in the same causal continuum of space and time in which we live, and so one in which no divine wonders transpired and no divine voices were heard.
It comes from a seminal paper Gilkey wrote in 1961, and to me bears not a little resemblance to that overly-quoted piece of Richard Lewontin’s:
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
To complete the picture, it should go without saying that the historico-critical approach to history is also founded on the same kind of assumptions, and that is the type of history pursued by modern biblical historians.
Now Gilkey was not an untypical theologian. He started in mainstream liberal theology, was mentored by Reinhold Niebuhr, and moved further and further from “liberal orthodoxy”(!) after the Second War, though his salary continued to be paid mainly by schools of Divinity. Like John Hick, he became increasingly pluralistic towards the end of his life, and like Hick remains a major theological influence. Another quote from his 1961 paper is interesting:
My own confusion results from what I feel to be the basic posture, and problem, of contemporary theology: it is half liberal and modern, on the one hand, and half biblical and orthodox, on the other, i.e., its world view or cosmology is modern, while its theological language is biblical and orthodox. … [T]his posture in two different worlds is the source of the difficulties and ambiguities which exist in current biblical theology…
Gilkey himself resolved his confusion by progressively ditching the orthodox, and that’s the common path. His original quote, notice, actually renders theology more secular than natural science. Methodological naturalism simply says that science cannot study the supernatural. Contemporary theology excludes even its possibility, though its actual field of study is, ironically, God. Note also that ones approach to theology is necessarily based on a clear choice: one either excludes the supernatural a priori, or not – there cannot logically be a compromise position, any more than science can exclude miracles except sometimes.
Just consider what effect this inevitably, not potentially, has on ones view of the Bible. Miracles are excluded of course – but so is every providential event, and every answered prayer. Moral teaching is completely suspect. All the mighty acts of God, including the great salvation events like Abraham’s call, Israel’s foundation and the New Covenant, are necessarily excluded as false understandings. But most of the authors are to be rejected too, for every prophet saying “Thus saith the Lord” was wrong or lying, every vision was false, every claim of revelation or appeal to the Holy Spirit erroneous or, more likely, fraudulent. Try an experiment – pick a Bible chapter at random, and tot up how many supernatural assumptions are contained in it. I ended up with a list of temple gatekeepers in 1 Chronicles, and even in that mundane passage they were chosen by lot, on the assumption that God would guide them.
So the foundational basis of critical theology, consistently applied, necessarily makes the Bible merely a record of misguided faith statements. Any true insights about God, then, can only come from human philosophy, on which the Bible is significantly light. And so we see in liberal theology the ascendancy of blue-sky thinking as the basis for faith – it is simply irrelevant if ones new theodicy conflicts directly with the entire biblical picture, whose authors’ thinking was muddled by their misguided supernaturalism. At most it provides a historically shared narrative framework on which to graft philosophical speculation.
The illogicity and conflict, of course, come from any remaining biblical faith commitments, especially of course to “the Christ Event”, which becomes increasingly nebulous, intellectually difficult or, alternatively, mystical depending whose theology you prefer. Jim Packer attributed such remnant beliefs to the surviving traces of earlier, true, encounters with God (how common it is for a Evangelical conversion experience to result, after seminary training by people like Gilkey, in a slow jettisoning of all that is orthodox or, even, experiential).
But retaining Christ within one’s belief system, of course, favours the non-naturalistic conviction that Jesus actually knew something, or did something, beyond the “causal continuum” in which we all live, and that ones methodology has already outlawed – why should Jesus be the exception to the methodology any more than the bacterial flagellum?
Small wonder that it’s so common to sideline even that and become enamoured of godless religions like Buddhism. There one can eat ones cake without having it. Whereas theologians of antiquity battled the world, the flesh and the devil (and sometimes the Pope), the battle of modern theologians becomes a war against the sacred text threatening to drown one in false superstition. On the basis of the theological worldview moderns have adopted, this conflict is as inevitable as death, and more terminal for Christian faith.
Next time we’ll take the short step of bringing current evangelicalism and theistic evolution into the picture.