Wednesday, 30 December 2009

FAITH, the unity of creation, and the Saviour/Redeemer

On 10th December, Rita posted about the idea that Christ would have become flesh even if there had been no original sin, in a post entitled Homo Factus Est. I promised at the time that I would engage with this post, and so here goes.

Firstly, I was reminded of my promise by the Liturgy of the Christmas Day Mass, on which I posted here. The texts of the Mass for during the day speak of Christ's birth as the coming of God who existed "from the beginning", before time began we might say; and who now comes to fulfil the hopes of all peoples and of all creation: All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God; sing joyfully to God all the earth. The prologue to St John's Gospel recognises the incursion of sin ("the light shining in the darkness", the One whose own did not know him), but the essential vision is one of Christ as the fulfilment of creation.

1. The "FAITH line" is usually presented in a way that depends heavily on accepting an idea of biological evolution, and it can appear that the approach taken by FAITH is essentially dependent on this. This makes it vulnerable to criticism by an evangelical/fideistic rejection of the science of evolution, a rejection which I do not think holds any water either from the point of view of reason used in the realm of science or from the point of view of reason used in the realm of philosophy/theology. Whilst I do not think this critique of the FAITH line is justified, I do think that the underlying principle of an organised, unified development in the order of creation can be maintained without a dependent reliance on a particular understanding of biological evolution. The principle is very readily illustrated from evolutionary theory, but it can be equally illustrated from ideas of cosmology or the fine balances of sub-nuclear physics. [As I never tire of saying to my pupils, "physics IS the best subject in the world"!]

2. An aspect of Stanley Jaki's thought that has attracted me is that, between the realm of science and the realm of theology, there is an intermediate role to be played by metaphysics. In other words, one can expect developments in the sciences to shed light on how we understand the being of the universe - and Jaki presents real existence (idea of being), coherent rationality (truth), a consistent whole (unity) and contingent existence (purposed, good) as necessary elements of a metaphysics that makes science a possible enterprise for the human community. [cf chapter 2 of his Cosmos and Creator, especially the summary at the end of the chapter]. In this framework, the contribution made by the FAITH line can be seen as one that sheds a light on the unity and purpose of the created order as metaphysical principles, rather than as tied inextricably to one understanding of evolutionary theory - the "unity law of control and direction" is not just a law that applies to biological evolution.

3. I think it is worth developing a little the idea of unity in the order of creation. If we are going to speak about the universe as one coherent whole, then we can only speak about that one coherent whole that we encounter in our lives. In the context of the debate about whether or not Christ would have come as man if there had not been original sin, it is difficult for us to articulate the debate without using words like "if" or "before" in reference to the event of sin. But when the unity of the created universe is taken seriously, we have to try to remove the "if" and the "before" and "after" from our reflection, and try to reflect upon what "is" and is "given to us" in its being. The phenomenon that we encounter is a world which contains sin, and in which Christ comes to us therefore as both a redeemer (to overcome sin) and as a saviour (to fulfil the destiny of men towards God, and so the destiny of the whole of creation). We can therefore expect both aspects to be present in the mystery of the Incarnation and of Christ's work on earth. It is this, I think, that is developed in Chapter 16 of Fr Holloway's Catholicism: A New Synthesis, a chapter entitled "Saviour and Redeemer". We should not be surprised that the Scriptures, the Church's Liturgy, her formally defined teaching and the tradition of her theological and spiritual writing has moments when the one aspect rather than the other is to the fore; but both aspects are there.

4. How we understand death, seen as a consequence of sin, needs also to be read in this same context of a unity of creation. Without death, our bodies would never grow old or infirm, and yet this appears to us as being a part of the natural course of things. Whenever I talk to anyone who is seriously ill or very elderly, I try to use the language of "coming to the end of their lives" as well as that of "dying", because I think it indicates something of the reality of what happens when we die. We should perhaps try to perceive this in a framework of the one-ness of the created order, where the "if" of the non-occurrence of sin does not have a meaning.

5. Rita's hesitation about the idea that Christians should reach out to scientists particularly with the aspect of Christ as saviour is very thought provoking. In the light of what I have been saying about the unity of the universe, then authentic evangelisation requires that we reach out with Christ under both aspects, those of saviour and of redeemer; but there is no reason why one aspect should not be to the fore rather than the other. There is another problem to be faced here. It can be summarised by the term "scientism", and it is that even where scientists recognise a purpose or direction in the universe (various forms of the anthropic principle, evolution) there remains the wish on their part to make these principles self-explaining of the universe rather than indicative of a transcending explanation. One root of this wish is a lack of philosophical formation, particularly with regard to metaphysics, the philosophy of being. But it presents Christians with the temptation to see in some of these ideas a proximity to Christian beliefs that the scientist proponents would explicitly reject and consider alien to a genuine understanding of the ideas themselves. Which is to suggest that, in reaching out to scientists, the Christian evangelist should not leave aside the intermediate part to be played by metaphysics.


Rita said...

Thank you Joe,

Once again you are wonderfully "both and" rather than "either or".

Fr John Abberton said...

I think there is another, more basic matter in this. Scientists are human beings, made by God, and whether they know it or not, there is an inbuilt need to reach out in some way. I think St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about this. This reaching out is actually a seeking for the transcendent. Without faith it can lead to serious mistakes, and even with faith, it can lead to serious sin when the sinner seeks what is perceived to be the "good" over God's Will.

Whether sceintists know about or accept metaphysics or not, the (unconscious?) reaching out can reveal itself in their theories so that we can discern the working of the Holy Spirit in what may be, philosphically and theologically, primitive stirrings causing even the atheistic scientist to utter truths he does not recognise.