… and the theological equivalent of Emmenthal

My last post should not be taken to imply that science is false or useless – merely that in itself it’s an insufficient predictor of normal reality. In other words, the naturalism agenda can’t be sustained by it, and there are (or at least, may well be) more things in heaven and earth than that particular philosophy dreams of.

Discussing the subject of that post with a theologically trained saxophonist(!), before I wrote it, it occurred to me that a parallel phenomenon occurs in the theology of the Bible, which might be helpful to some. Many people are troubled by the contrast seen in the Wisdom Literature, and particularly in Job and Ecclesiastes, to much of the rest of the Bible. The latter, for example, seems so shockingly cynical to many conservatives that it’s often thought to be something like a “devil’s advocate” in the canon – don’t forget there are some godless people like this, folks! Be careful not to end up like that!

Alternatively, those of a more liberal bent use these books to prove the divergent and incompatible nature of Jewish theology – there is no overarching Biblical doctrine, they say, and you can draw your own conclusions: either pick which bits you like, or discard the lot.

The problem is that these texts seem to overturn the simple moral lessons found elsewhere: that God blesses the good, and punishes the wicked. Proverbs, though itself in the Wisdom tradition, is exemplary of this simple approach: people who do good things do well, and fools who do evil come to a sticky end. You can see the same idea in the psalms, in their claims on God to support the writer because he’s blameless, and to punish his opposers because they’re wicked. Even to us that seems a little over-simplified. The principle is even clearer in, say, Psalm 37 where David claims that he’s never seen the good come to harm even though he’s old, and that the wicked will inevitably lose everything. “What kind of monastery did he inhabit?” we ask.

Reading Job, those who believe that there is a moral God overseeing the affairs of man in this way are troubled by the fact that Job’s friends seem to be talking much sense to a self-righteous Job, and yet are condemned for it. Solutions range from turning the book on its head to say that Job foolishly allowed his pride and impatience rule his heart, to the more common one of simply not confronting its message at all. As for Ecclesiastes – well, we all know Solomon wasn’t a proper believer, don’t we?

But let’s look at things another way. The straightforward moral guidance, and the assertion of God’s real, present governance in mankind’s moral and spiritual dealings can be seen as the equivalent of reductionist science. God’s simple law and his inevitable judgements truly do underpin everything that happens in the world. Yet in the complex interactions we experience here, the direct enactment of God’s justice may be literally impossible to see. Just as you can’t predict or describe the changes in the eddying winds though you know Boyle’s law must be in there somewhere, so in the same way you can’t predict what will happen to those you perceive to be worthy of reward or punishment.

That’s not to say that the law is not operative: in general the complexities of the physical world are not despite the physical laws’ operation, but because of them. Neither does it make God’s laws useless abstractions: the law of gravity may in particular cases be unpredictable for all kinds of reasons: multiple attracting bodies, or air pressure, or buoyancy and so on. But we still teach our children both to use it and to avoid its harmful consequences (“Drop the ball in the box” “Don’t fall in the pond”). Understanding basic science, or God’s law, is essential for living successfully – but neither of them gives one total control over the world.

Even those “naive” Bible passages are true and useful. It’s generally true that virtue has its own reward, and that evil has bad consequences for the perpetrator, even apart from the concept of a final judgement. It’s legitimate to cry to God for justice even though you are not spotlessly righteous and your oppressor not throughly reprobate. Even Job’s comforters were not to blame because their theology was plain wrong, but because it was wrongly applied to a complex situation – just as reductionist scientists sometimes find it hard to recognise why sociology or history don’t always come up with the same answers in the way their highly abstracted disciplines do. God is genuinely governing the world now, and not just holding off until some future reckoning. But it’s the government of a messy reality, not a Platonic ideal.

Job and Ecclesiastes are great (in part) because they show the messiness inherent in real life, and give us some serious clues about how to live life in that reality, without becoming either bigots or cynics.

One more thing. In the previous post, one purpose was to point out how, though the abstractions of science are indeed the raw material of daily experience, yet the complexity around us actually leaves plenty of room for God to act apart from them (though not against them – see Alvin Plantinga on this), through miracle or providence. Likewise there is an equivalent principle, a confounding factor, at work which makes the experience of God in life more than simply the complex interactions of his laws and judgements. And that factor is Grace.

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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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