The Language of God

No, sorry Francis Collins, not that one. Nor Galileo’s mathematics. I’m referring to the whole science-faith interface, and more.

I was much impressed by N. T. Wright’s chapter in Christ and the Created Order, called “Christ and the Cosmos,” which I reviewed at Peaceful Science. He points out the need to think of the creation in which we live, including especially “nature,” in christological terms:

[W]e don’t start with a view of “how God made the world” and insert Jesus into that. We start with Jesus himself, … and we therefore reflect on creation itself not as a mechanistic or rationalistic event, process, or “fact,” and not as the blind operation of impersonal forces, but as the wise, generous outpouring of the creative love that we see throughout Jesus’s kingdom-work, and supremely on the cross.(p108)

Without getting far into a theology of nature, he neverless suggests:

…we ought to expect that it would often be like a seed growing secretly; that it would involve seed being sown which went to waste and other seed being sown which produced a great crop. We ought to expect that it would be a strange, slow process which might suddenly reach some kind of a harvest. And we ought to expect that it would involve some kind of overcoming of chaos. Above all we ought to expect that it would be a work of utter and self-giving love; that the power which made the world, like the power which ultimately rescued the world, would be the power, not of brute force, or of some vast robotic machinery controlled by a distant bureaucrat, but of radical outpoured generosity.(p102-103)

He seems to be preparing the ground, as I said in the review, for an old-earth, even evolutionary view of creation, but emphatically not an Epicurean one. Maybe he’ll develop that more in future. What is most radical is his thesis that, just as we only know Christ as he is revealed in the historical records of the New Testament, then in some way our christological approach to nature is dependent on placing history above empiricism in the intellectual hierarchy. “Discuss.”

Today I want to consider what it means, before that kind of detail, to think generally about all creation being a work of Christ, of a piece with the work he has done in salvation and in our own Christian lives. For if Jesus Christ is both divine (“and I, the Lord, do not change,”) and in his own name “the same yesterday, today and forever,” all his works must be done in the same “spirit,” and share his character at the deepest level.

An example. I am in regular contact with my brother, and each knows pretty much how the other will act in any situation. From time to time he launches into a description of computer programming issues he’s working on, using terms about which I know nothing. Yet I do know that his approach to programming is going to be of a piece with his approach to writing or anything else. If someone’s professional character is radically different from their personal character, it suggests some lack of integration within their make-up, like the death-camp guard who dotes on his children and weeps when he hears Mozart. As my old banking colleague used to say, “Words and figures do not agree.”

The integrated character of Jesus is not, I suppose, in doubt. We get no sense of his suddenly lurching into “classroom mode” when he turns from an individual to the crowd, nor of a shift to “clinical demeanour” when he moves from conversation to healing. So would he, as Galileo seems to imply, suddenly become all mathematical and deistic in creating the world and everything in it? There’s no sense of that regarding the new creation of the kingdom, which is the same kind of work.

Another consideration along these lines is the difficulty different human disciplines have in talking to one another, even when discussing the same things. Not only do, say, philosophers and scientists use the same words for different things and different words for the same, but a geneticist will even have a different way of thinking about evolution from a physiologist. As I discussed several years ago, even national bodies of academics will have very different, even incompatible, approaches to the same field, according to accidents of powerful personalities, favoured theories, politics and the like. It’s not just scientists – theologians even from Britain and America differ markedly in their approaches, not only when studying the same Christ, but within the same denominations.

As another example, in the nineteenth century biologists and anthropologists talked much the same evolutionary language. At some stage, though, anthropologists realised that culture doesn’t evolve like life is said to, and the two fields actually diverged. Likewise for sociology, which is far less compatible with pseudo-sociology like evolutionary psychology than it once was.

C. S. Lewis points out just how deep the world is carved up by human, not natural, divisions. In Studies in Words he describes how, historically, “Natural Philosophy” (phusike) became a separate academic pursuit from mathematike and metaphusike, and that it was this disciplinary divergence that came to define what was physical:

Anything is phusikon if you meet it while doing your course in phusike. You need not ask what phusis itself is; you need only know whose lectures a thing comes in, in what year you read about it, finally for what examination it prepares you. Here, in fact, we have the Methodological Idiom at work. (69)

Now, even though science has a professional methodology, useful if not philosophically very justifiable, we may be sure that Jesus has an entirely different one in his creation and government of nature. He did not do the course in Baconian science before he made the world. And we may be pretty confident that, in some way, his methodology is cut from the same cloth as his way of dealing with people when he walked the earth, and now, as he sends his Spirit into our lives.

It would, after all, be pretty absurd to think of the divine Logos subscribing to methodological naturalism. At the same time, it’s equally absurd to think that nature, as it is to him, is so ineffable that Jesus couldn’t converse intelligibly with a natural philosopher then, or now. The must be a way of speaking about creation – or any other subject – in keeping with the way that Christ sees the world. He did, remember, originate the thoughts that scientists are trying to think after him.

But what kind of character would that language of discourse have? How will the Incarnate Christ accommodate his language about the universe to, say, a resurrected Ptolemaic astronomer when he returns? Especially if a resurrected Big-Bang cosmologist were in the same room? You can bet he wouldn’t split the difference and use the language of Copernicus.

In other words, there must be a way of thinking about nature, in useful detail that brings us closer to the christological worldview we find in, say, Colossians 1, and to which N. T. Wright refers. A language, in other words, that takes the Creator into account in the creation. I wonder what kind of form that might take?

Does it matter? Maybe in practical terms it doesn’t. Naturalism gets PhDs in the bag and plastic into the oceans well enough. But it seems kind of strange for art critics to be discussing the Mona Lisa without reference to Leonardo, when he’s actually sitting in the room painting another masterpiece.

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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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