Monday, July 06, 2009
The Theology of Incompatibility
There is an interesting exchange (that may well continue) in the Chicago Daily Observer. A Catholic priest, Fr. Robert Barron, a self-described "Catholic evangelist," has responded to Lawrence Krauss' Wall Street Journal article which took, for the most part, the incompatibilist view of science and religion. Fr. Barron expounded on, if long-ago memory serves, fairly standard Catholic theology:
God, in classical Christian theology, should never be understood as one being among many, even the supreme being. He is not, as theologian David Burrell put it, "the biggest thing around." God is not the most impressive instance of the genus "existence," taking his place alongside of planets, stars, animals, us, and all other existing things. Rather, God is, as Aquinas neatly put it, ipsum esse subsistens (the sheer act of to-be itself). God is that unique reality in which existence and essence coincide, which is a fancy way of saying that God is not a type of being, but the very energy of existence itself.
First, authentic religion poses no obstactle whatsoever to the explorations and investigations of nature undertaken by the physical sciences. As the sciences enumerate the various finite causes responsible for a given phenomenon, they should never worry that they have given insufficient attention to God's contribution to the causal nexus, for God is not one more item in the causal nexus. And second, when God acts in the world (as the Bible clearly says he does), he never acts otherwise than as the creator of the whole universe, which is to say, he never acts competitively with creatures, as though he was endeavoring to push them aside or interfere with them. Notice how exquisitively sensitive the Biblical authors are to this dynamic. Over and again, they stress how God acts in and through ordinary political, cultural, psychological, and natural causes, accomplishing his purposes without fussily "intervening" in the affairs of the world.
I am always amazed at theologians' abilities to obfuscate.. what about the God people pray to, the god who performs miracles, the god who tells people what they are and are not supposed to do, the god who banishes people for all eternity if they simply choose not to believe in her.?. moreover, while I recognize the subtlety of the notion:
God is instead the reason why there is something rather than nothing. Precisely as sustaining creator of the whole, God is why there are cherries, water, salt, the heat of the oven, the Gulf of Mexico and the Jet Stream at all.
... and this is one of the Deist concepts I was referring to as marginally compatible with science ... but while it sounds nice, (a) what does it mean? (b) why should I believe it?, and (c) why is such a concept necessary?
Similarly, asking why the concept is necessary is off on a tangent. As Krauss himself pointed out, it is not only unnecessary for science to have any concept of God, it is forbidden to science. But being unnecessary is not conflict. In what sense does a God concept that does not result in the denial of scientific results but is merely unnecessary to them conflict with those results?
Krauss' query as to why he should believe Fr. Barron's version of God is a theological question, one that I myself could find no answer satisfying enough to continue to believe in any God. But I still don't see what that is supposed to have to do with a conflict between science and religion, since both Barron and Krauss agree that science can't provide the answer in the first place?
The one thing in Krauss' reply that somewhat goes to the question originally raised is his complaint that most believers don't adhere to such a notion of a transcendent God, instead believing in the ordinary sense of miracles as suspensions of natural laws. Part of that is theological differences between Catholicism and other faiths. But even if most of the Catholic laity do not understand the theology, does that really go to the question of incompatibility? After all, how many of the 33% of Americans who agree that scientific evidence for evolution exists have a good grasp of evolutionary theory? If we were to ask whether the understanding of evolution by the majority of Americans who accept it is compatible with science, would it pass?
I have no problem with Krauss asking these questions or even with his answers, which I basically agree with. I just find it interesting how quickly he abandoned the issue of incompatibility and went to theological questions and what that means about his actual priorities.
Labels: Accommodationism Incompatiblism
God is that unique reality in which existence and essence coincide, which is a fancy way of saying that God is not a type of being, but the very energy of existence itself. This way of talking about God has its roots, biblically, in the third chapter of the book of Exodus. When Moses asks the Lord “what is your name?” God responds, “I am who I am.” In posing his question, Moses was inquiring after God’s identifying marks, the specificity of his manner of being, that which would set him apart from all other existents. But God’s answer undermines the question.
Yep sounds like a kook version of the story.
"21 Then the LORD said, 'There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.'"
Naturally, that does not "undermine" Barron's theory that God is not a type of being. Of course not...
Is that guy serious? What a kook.
Okay, back to the priorities: Are kooks and science compatible? Sure, why not...
It's a clever strategy, near impossible to counter:
Neo-atheist: God, as I define him, is a meddler and thereby incompatible with true scientific practice, which relies on predictable regularity.
Apologist: Your definition of God is not embraced by many or most of the great theological traditions.
Neo-atheist: Who cares? Why should I bone up on the study of a non-existent being? Courtier's Reply! Courtier's Reply! Obfuscation!
If Krauss and his cohort took any pains to define and quantify the "typical" god most theists (apparently) believe in, I'd be more sympathetic to his argument. When he writes that one of the characteristics of such a god is "banishing" infidels (or when he confuses Deism with panentheism) it makes me think he's talking about a projection of his own (uninformed) imagination, combined with an overextrapolation of fundamentalist interpretations to apply to all theism generally, not the actual "man in the pew."
Coyne is back at it too, which I should have something to say about later today. His grasp of theology makes Krauss look like a veritable Jesuit by comparison.