Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The most urgent theological task for this generation

"Notably, the question on which the debate between creationists and evolutionists largely centres - 'By what mechanism and in what timeframe did the world come into being?' - is exactly the kind of abstract question in which the Bible displays no interest. This question is abstract because its answer - whatever answer we may accept - imposes no obligation for us to act upon the world in just and honourable ways. As the foregoing discussion implies, it is better to ask, while reading the early chapters of Genesis, 'What does it mean for humans to be creatures among other creatures, all of us radically dependent upon God? What actions are incumbent upon us as a consequence of our status as creatures?' Rowan Williams offers an answer fully congruent with the whole biblical account: 'Being creatures is learning humility, not as submission to an alien will, but as the acceptance of limit and death' (Williams, 2000: 78). Consciously being creatures means discovering the trustworthiness of God, and allowing 'a generosity creation of community to be "enacted" in us' (76). However, his further observation appears somewhat too sanguine now, an ecologically disastrous decade after it was written: 'The discovery of solidarity in creatureliness has obvious consequences, which hardly need spelling out, for our sense of responsibility in the material world; it puts at once into question the model of unilateral mastery over the world' (76; emphasis added).

"In fact, the most urgent theological task for this generation may well be spelling out the material consequences of a sense of self that proceeds from contemplating '"the wise, ordered, gracious and loving mutual correspondence" among creatures' (Williams, 2000: 76, citing St John of the Cross). Surely theologians, professional and lay, will need to do that in conversation with scientists, naturalists, and natural philosophers, including but not exclusively people of biblical faith."

- Ellen F. Davis, "Reading the Bible after Darwin: Creation and a Culture of Restraint" in Theology after Darwin (eds. Michael Northcott and R. J. Berry; London: Paternoster, 2009), 68.

So, here is the original answer to my riddle a couple of days ago. This book is worth reading (almost) in full, containing a collection of very thoughtful pieces on what it means for theology once we take Darwin seriously and stop trying to beat our heads against a wall of denial about our origins. I helped (in very minor ways) to put this volume together (being research assistant to the editors) and was reminded of it after preaching on "Evolution or Genesis?" this Sunday (I didn't pick the title and questioned the "or" in it).

Now that I've distracted you with that context, on to the substance of the quote.

I am sympathetic to both Williams and Davis on this point, though think they both need further nuancing. I have addressed the Williams piece that Davis is discussing at some length in my chapter on his account of creatureliness.

I have said before, I think that the most greatest moral issue of our day is whether we turn to Christ or anti-Christ in faith, to self or neighbour in love, to false hopes or hope that first goes through the cross.

And corresponding to this, I believe that the most important theological task of this (and every generation) is to hear and believe the good news of Christ for us today. This is both paying close attention to the grand announcement passed down in the holy scriptures and proclaimed by the church, and it is listening to this message today. The gospel does not change, but the hearers do, and with them and their contexts, the emphases and insights of the gospel. The gospel proclamation - the reign of God has come near in the crucified and risen Christ - will have different implications for people in different circumstances. And this means that making a generalisation about the particular shape of this task for an entire generation will also nearly always be difficult. Not only will different members of a generation face differing situations, but each will have multiple ways in which the gospel transforms her or his existence. So the theological task is always both singular in focus ("For I resolved to know nothing while I was among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" - 1 Corinthians 2.2) while complex in applications.

Nonetheless, I don't believe it illegitimate to attempt (fallible and partial) interpretations of the aspect or aspects of the gospel that will have particular resonance within a particular historical context. And this is how I read the above claim: that (one of) the highest priorities for Christian theology in a society slowly waking up to the scale of ecological and resource crises resulting from the success of industrialism at reshaping the globe, is an articulation of the human self as creature amidst a community of life.

I think more needs to be said about being a creature in community with Christ, and all kinds of other nuances, but the basic idea is worthy of consideration.

9 comments:

Sam Norton said...

Big yes - especially to your penultimate sentence. Have you read this book(essay) yet: http://www.wide-margin.co.uk/christians-and-catastrophe ?

Anthony Douglas said...

Yikes. Glad to see I got the Answer According to Byron right; frightened by how close I got to Rowan Williams! I must have had a bad day ;-)

byron smith said...

Have you read much Williams? He's not quite as scary as you might think...

Sam - I haven't, but the Google Preview looks very good. Thanks for the tip. I'm ordering a copy.

Highanddry said...

I'm having flash-backs to conversations when I was at theological college between those who believed there are many (dare I say contextual) 'saving needs', and those that affirmed one ultimate 'saving need' for all.

I'm of the opinion that it is a 'yes and' and not an 'either or'. In this I think I agree with Byron in that the broad theological task is unchanging and eternal however it has a contextual edge as well as the Truth of God intersects with the complexity of human experience.

byron smith said...

Ring species - a problem for a simplistic understanding of "kinds" in Genesis 1.

byron smith said...

Ring species are really a good example of what Wittgenstein calls family resemblances, and really provide an example of the kind of problem encountered by overly rigorous realist ontologies. Reality is often fuzzier and messier than our language and categories.

byron smith said...

Scot McKnight: What is at stake pastorally in the rejection of evolutionary biology and a cosmology informed by science.

byron smith said...

Haven't we always been [YE] creationists? A post gathering together quotes from the Fathers illustrating the existence of non-literal readings of the creation narratives going back to the early centuries.

byron smith said...

Peter Enns responds to a review of his book (The Evolution of Adam) and lays out some of the important methodological questions of the relation of hermeneutical and doctrinal reasoning on these matters.