Theology of Nature – the Language of God 3

Let me continue where I left off the last post, by quoting N T Wright’s fifth Gifford Lecture from February of this year. He describes:

…the human task of hermeneutics, of a rich and multilayered truth-telling, discovering and displaying meaning, in symbol, story and song, by the many levels of significance in God’s world present and future, and particularly in human life.

Wright describes this as a “hermeneutic of love” in understanding the world, arising inevitably from the revelation of the new creation in Christ that also makes sense of the old. He goes on to make this the basis for a biblical natural theology, but we could – or perhaps must – equally take it as the basis for our proposed theology of nature. How can a theology of nature be adequate if it does not arise from the revelation of Christ, its Creator? In particular (Wright insists) it cannot be adequate if it arises instead from the prevalent Epicurean philosophy of our culture.

Incidentally, Wright disarms the accusation of “subjectivity” in this approach by pointing out that love is the fundamental reality of the universe, whereas “objectivity” is simply an illusion based on a particular ancient philosophy.

Accordingly we do not develop a theology of nature primarily as a basis for science: rather we seek to understand nature in relation to God. It’s just that if science wishes to be on the same page as nature, it will inevitably be based on the best theology of nature available. Hence my health warning a few posts ago.

It’s not that this emphasis has always been lacking in Christian thought. I quoted Heisenberg in my previous post on his book:

However, the emphasis on experience was connected with a slow and gradual change in the aspect of reality. While in the Middle Ages what we nowadays call the symbolic meaning of a thing was in some way its primary reality, the aspect of reality changed toward what we can perceive with our senses. What we can see and touch became primarily real….

…At the same time the human attitude toward nature changed from a contemplative one to a pragmatic one. One was not so much interested in nature as it is; one rather asked what one can do with it…

Let me illustrate with some examples from the scriptural dabar of Christ. Paul’s letters are congenial to western minds because they appear to develop arguments logically. Where he is disliked is often when this is not so, for example when he uses metaphors developed from Old Testament texts, apparently seprate from the line of his reasoning. He is actually less “syllogistic” than he first appears, and therefore a far greater thinker. Natural language can do syllogism, but is nearly always far more than linear logic.

The Book of Revelation mystifies us because it is nearly all metaphor, allusion, and the particular style of Jewish imagery now called “apocalyptic”. Understanding comes by a kind of gestalt association of ideas, rather than by a reasoned linear argument. But my favourite example of this is 1 John. This short letter is in such simple Greek that it’s an elementary translation exercise that even I have done – but it’s frustrating for most westerners because the same thoughts seem to be repeated more or less randomly in different combinations. Rather than my attempting quotes, read through it and you’ll see.

I long ago discovered that the way to use the letter is simply to read it, over and again (it goes without saying with an open mind and heart). All its scattered truths begin to build up into one interconnected picture in which every element is vital. It is not a logical argument – it is an organic whole, a network of meaning. It is a worldview one has to absorb in its entirety.

The same may be said of the Bible’s “annoying” format as a narrative mixed with all kinds of other stuff: the western mind would prefer a systematic theology, but instead it gets a bunch of stories. Yet as I have pointed out before, the power of a story is that it gives an understanding of scattered events. And likewise the “gestalt” understanding of a letter like 1 John or of Revelation is the same kind of knowledge that we actually have to use to understand the world aright. This is what Michael Polanyi called “personal knowledge”, the global insight that any truly skilled person – from a foundryman to an experimental scientist – must have to be any good.

This human ability to gain understanding from ostensibly unordered reality must be true, if you look around at your bookshelf. Assuming your books have been read, rather than being there for show, then although each author may have attempted a tightly ordered argument to get a book deal, you as the interpreter have somehow integrated all their independent arguments into what you hope is a coherent view of the world, or whichever aspects of it your books cover.

That’s why us Brits instinctively dislike the American style (especially in popular religious books) of saying on the cover: “This book will enable you to: [bullet points as appropriate],” and why I get annoyed at preachers who ask me to spend a minute at the end of their sermon deciding how I’m going to apply the teaching to my life. For the world is a library to be digested, not an algorithm with a single output to be calculated.

If the analogy of divine logos with the fundamental nature of human speech, which I’ve been making for these last three posts, is correct, then the nature of the world is about an interconnected network of meaning, at multiple levels. Meanoing, purpose, and interconnectedness are the nature of reality, and not just a human epiphenomenon. The mediaevals (and in fact all earlier cultures) were right to recognise this, and to attempt to build their worldview upon decoding it.

The difference for us now is that, in Christ, we have the right key, the mystery hidden from ages past, as Wright unpacks in his Gifford lectures. His meaning permeates the whole of nature – and of course, that must include his telelogical purposes for it.

Let me (finally) apply this to nature. If there is more than a superficial truth in the teaching that the Logos who created the world has true affinities to the language of those created in his image, then we might expect the world to be best understood not by linear logic, but by that same “gestalt” process we see in the written logos of the Logos. We would expect nature, at its deeper levels, to display the characteristics of language, in all its interconnected richness of ideas and meaning.

As science has moved beyond the superficial generalisations, it displays more and more of this “gestalt” nature. Goethe applied this as a method in his approach to biology long ago (see  here and here ) – he is disregarded now because the questions he asked of nature are so different from those that modern scientists ask. But modern biology is having to embrace the question of form, in that the genome turns out not to be a linear protein-building code, but an holistic entity in which each part affects all the rest. And that’s before one considers non-genetic, whole-cell processes.

Biology also has to understand ecological systems which can, to an extent, be simplified and studied to good effect, but which in reality compose an interlocking whole not only across the whole spatial biosphere, but across the history of life as well.

The human sciences, too, are beginning to rebel against the kind of reductionism that looks at behaviour statistically and treats it as truth (of which a practical application is to use personal data to generate the right messages to swing elections in the desired way). Even medicine now needs to be increasingly personalised in the light of the knowledge of individual differences.

Werner Heisenberg saw the forerunner of this approach in his own quantum science: he attributed the uncertainty of quantum events to the effect of interaction with the whole of the rest of reality, and hence his own stress on the importance of that “classical” reality, and of the natural language we use to deal with it. So even fundamental physics points us to a nature full of rich meaning.

Don’t ask me to suggest how science might accommodate this increasing realisation that natural reality is about contingency and interconnectedness more than it’s about regularity and abstraction. All I’d say is that this is to be expected from the biblical God who creates reality by speaking it into being, using a “language” that is no less rich in meaning, interconnectedness and, most of all, love than the language humans have used since they first learned speech, and thought. Human language is going to be somewhere near the centre of any theology of nature.

It might be that this could lead scientists, and or philosophers of science, into a greater study of what is usually taken for granted – the language by which scientists think and communicate every day. If that seems too great a task, then we have less courage than did those like Francis Bacon, who expected their own new theology of nature to reveal, but only over centuries of work, wonderful things.

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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