A Purpose For Everything by L. Charles Birch
Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published by Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 7: New Wine in New Bottles
Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.
Progress in truth -- truth of science and truth of religion -- is mainly a progress in the framing of concepts, in discarding artificial abstractions or partial metaphors, and in evolving notions which strike more deeply into the root of reality.
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles; else the bottles break, and the wine runs out, and the bottles perish; but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.
The preceding chapter was primarily concerned with the predicament arising from regarding knowledge like a substance to be neatly divided into parcels called disciplines. This chapter is concerned with some ways of bringing divided disciplines together again. It commences with religion and science and proceeds to the relation between religion and culture as a whole.
The good news is that new wine is fermenting in both the vats of science and those of religion. Neither the new science nor the new religion can be contained in the old formula of a legal -- mechanistic universe; that is, the image of a universe running according to rules laid down by an external law-maker. It has become evident to more and more people that science cannot live with an interventionist God. Nor can religion. As yet the message hasn’t got across to today’s world. The principles of the Christian religion may be eternal but the expression of those principles needs continual development. The truth may have been delivered once and for all to the saints. It is not delivered to us that way. Even today’s preachers and theologians who claim to be recipients of the truth so conveniently delivered once and for all, so long ago, are not as uninfluenced by history and culture as many of them seem to suppose. Whitehead (1947 p. 96) surmised that if the leaders of any ecclesiastical organization at present existing were transported back to the sixteenth century, and stated their full beliefs, historical and doctrinal, either in Geneva or in Spain, then Calvin or the Inquisitors would have been profoundly shocked and would have acted according to their habits in such cases.
If science and religion are to remain alive their formulations cannot remain static. New wine cannot be put into old bottles. The image, of course, is to the ancient wine bottle which was a wineskin made of leather. New wine simply bursts the old wineskins.
This is not a matter of making religion conform to each new model or discovery in science. It is a mutual matter. Science can be on guard to keep its concerns wide. Religion can point out the abstractions and false metaphors of science. Science can be a winnowing fan to religion, blowing away the husks to reveal the kernels. The encounter of religion with science compels it to purify its thinking about God from views of power that are sub-Christian. Together, both can discover the unity of nature. For if knowledge is one then each new discovery will involve some reshaping of the rest. As biology, for example, moves forward on its frontier at the molecular level, religion has a new way opened up for it also, just as evolutionary biology opened up a whole new province for religious thinking about creation.
The scientific understanding of the origin of species through evolution made nonsense of the origin of species by special creation. It does more. It says to religion: re-think your concepts of how God acts in nature. The ‘creationists’ of today want to reject the new wine of biology. To accept it would involve them in a reconstruction of their religious formulations which they are unwilling to face. They happily accept the new wine of the big-bang concept of the origin of the universe because they think it fits into the old bottles of a literal understanding of the first chapter of Genesis. But it doesn’t.
It is a mistake to suppose that the writers of the Bible in a pre-scientific age were giving a scientific account of the universe. They had other images. They knew nothing about concepts of the ‘big bang’ or ‘continuous creation’ of modern cosmology. The writers of Genesis were probably not evolutionists. They didn’t write about evolution. So it is pointless to stretch their metaphors to an evolutionary context. But they had insights that an evolutionist can respect. And if we are convinced that evolution is an appropriate way of thinking of the cosmos, we can certainly gain insights from the Bible that can be translated into that context. Teilhard de Chardin sought to do that. So too does process theology. Some insights of religion will remain valid no matter what science discovers.
There are other religious ideas people have held and still hold that have become irrelevant with an understanding of science. The interventionist God is one such concept. This makes life for some people confusing. They want to keep their beliefs like canned sardines that don’t change. A living faith is like a living fish. It cannot be canned without losing its life. But it is much more difficult to deal with squirming living fish than canned fish.
Religion and Culture
Science is but one part of culture. I have concentrated thus far on the confrontation of science and religion because the greatest intellectual task for religion today is a new dialogue with science that could transform both. The principles involved in such a dialogue apply as well to other aspects of culture besides science.
In the history of Christian thought there have been periods in which great attempts have been made to find a synthesis of religion and culture. In the nineteenth century G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher had the greatest influence in this respect. Both taught at Berlin University in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Tillich (1967 p. 387) regards Schleiermacher as the father of modern Protestant theology. Hegel’s influence extended not only into religion but also into the political transformation of the world in the twentieth century. Marx, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are not understandable apart from Hegel’s influence upon them. In the twentieth century A. N. Whitehead is the great synthesizer. But there have been as well periods in which religion was sundered apart from culture, science was separated from religion and religion was separated from metaphysics. Karl Barth and his followers in this century said there can be no synthesis. There is no point of contact between God and man. God is in his heaven and man is in the world. This is the situation of religion against culture. A sorry situation it is for both religion and culture. Religion becomes irrelevant to the life of the world.
If religion is not to be divorced from the rest of life and culture it has to grow. The religious task is not simply a case of trying to experience and understand what the founders of the faith bequeathed. It is to make it relevant to our time and culture. And if culture has something novel and positive to contribute to the dialogue, religion cannot remain uninfluenced. Culture is continually changing as science, art and education develop. A living religion evolves with these changes.
Christianity is both a protest against the contemporary world and an effort to transform itself and the world. There is always new wine being fermented in the vats of culture. How is religion to appropriate these new insights? Tillich saw religion, not as a special function of human life, but as the dimension of depth in all its functions (Tillich 1959 p. 5). Nothing is to be excluded. But, he asked, if religion is present in all functions of life, why has humanity developed religion as a special sphere among others, in myth, cult, devotion and ecclesiastical institutions? He answers -- because of the tragic estrangement of human life from its deepest possibilities.
According to the visionary who wrote the last book of the Bible, there will be no temple in the heavenly Jerusalem. There will be no secular realm. So there will be no religious realm. There will be no division into sacred and secular at all. The very existence of religion as a separate realm is a result of our tragic estrangement from the depth of life’s possibilities. When that estrangement is overcome, as envisaged in the book of Revelation, religion as such is no longer necessary. It follows that religion becomes less necessary the more it enables culture to find its real depths. The secular is then swallowed up in the sacred. But while religion exists, if it despises the secular realm it forgets its own emergency character and creates its own ghetto.
When the Christianity of any age seeks to discover the dimension of depth in contemporary culture it will itself be transformed to the extent that it succeeds. That will depend upon a readiness to re-examine all its theology in the light of both the questions and the discoveries of the day. Only in this way can theology hope to be a living influence in the church and the world. The dialogue between science and religion in the past has resulted in no more than a truce on the battlefields. It should have quite another purpose -- that each be transformed, one by the other. A healthy relation of faith and culture requires that we constantly rethink faith in terms of the rest of our understanding of reality.
In the first centuries of Christian history the church appropriated a great deal from Neoplatonism, which was its chief competitor in the Hellenistic world. It was both a gain and a loss. It was a loss when its assimilation was uncritical. To a large extent the conversion of the pagan intelligentsia required the assimilation into Christianity of what this intelligentsia found most convincing in its classical heritage, its poetry and its science. In making this point Cobb (1982 p. 6) says that Basil of Caesarea declared that in pagan literature Christians could find something that ‘keeps the soul alive’. The victory of the church over paganism was in part due ‘to the rule that the Christians assimilate pagan ideas while the pagans do not appropriate Christian ones’ (Momigliano 1963 p. 87, quoted by Cobb 1982a p. 6). Even Christian leaders who fulminated against this sort of assimilation accepted much of classical culture. Tertullian was the outstanding example. Yet he was selective in his denunciations. Ever since there have been exclusivists who denied any truth outside their religion. Others have struggled to make their faith relevant to all truth. St Thomas Aquinas was deeply indebted to Islam. His recognition of rational theology in Islam influenced the development of his conception of the power of reason to attain much knowledge of God (Cobb 1982a p. 8).
The church was deeply influenced by the culture of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. On the one hand the Enlightenment cast off the dead hand of authority. On the other hand it presented the case for the modern worldview as mechanistic and bound inevitably to progress on the wings of science. The church never came to terms with the Enlightenment. There were for it both gains and losses. The church gained in so far as it accepted a critical attitude to dogma. This began around 1750 when G. E. Lessing led the fight against a stupid orthodoxy which stuck to traditional interpretations. This critical approach was carried on by a succession from D. F. Strauss, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Johannes Weiss, Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann and many others. They were not, of course, the first critics of dogma but they carried through systematically the criticisms of an earlier age by people such as Fausto Socinus of the sixteenth century, perhaps the first ‘modern’ process theologian.
As a result of the Enlightenment reason took on a new role. ‘Have courage to use your own reason -- that is the motto of the Enlightenment’, said Kant. It was because of the rationalism of the Enlightenment that we no longer have witch trials. In its principle of harmony the Enlightenment laid the foundations for democracy as against authoritarian rule. It was the conviction that in spite of the fact that each one decides now for himself about government, a common will or harmony will somehow result from it all. It is the belief in education to develop the potentialities of every individual so that a stable society will result. The people of the Enlightenment created public schools that had not existed up to that time. The church accepted a role in this also.
The sense of moral discipline so strongly developed in Calvinism included the discipline of work which took on the connotation of working for the transformation of nature for the sake of humanity. The Protestant work ethic was reinforced by the Enlightenment. This was both good and bad. It led to exploitation of labor and it has never been readapted to this age of increasing leisure (see Davis & Gosling 1985).
In its encounter with the Enlightenment the church lost when it surrendered the public or secular sphere of life to control by the assumptions of the Enlightenment. At least for Protestantism this led many to retreat into a religion of the soul (Newbigin 1986). The church lost when it accepted from the Enlightenment a reinforcement of the idea that God made the world and left it to follow its own laws. Science and religion became two separate domains.
Science dealt with the secular realm while religion had to do with a God who transcended that realm. God was removed from nature. And, as Tillich (1967 p. 422) points out, when God is removed from nature, God gradually disappears altogether, because we are nature. If God has nothing to do with nature, he finally has nothing to do with our total being. For many that is precisely what the Enlightenment did. They rejected the supernaturalistic God and became atheists.
Today there is a longstanding, but urgent need for Christians to reassess their inheritance from the Enlightenment, to consolidate what was gained and to free themselves from the negative consequences. The need deepens with each passing day.
It is the contention of the historian of religion Marty (1986) that religion in twentieth-century America was essentially shaped by its encounter with modernity. He traces the diverse ways in which American religion embraced, rejected or cautiously accepted the modern world with both gains and losses.
Part of the culture of the modern world is a plurality of religions. The most common response of Christians to other faiths has been to assume those who are different are for that reason inferior: they lack the saving truth of Christianity. An alternative position is to see Jesus as one savior among many. In Beyond Dialogue Cobb (1982b) sees the former as turning Christ into an instrument of our arrogance and the latter as abandoning the universal meaning and truth of Christ that is central to Christianity. He asks if there is another option and points out that neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the World Council of Churches has accepted either horn of this dilemma. Both are working to avoid imperialism and relativism. Both are committed to dialogue. Dialogue assumes that the partner is worth listening to as well as addressing. But dialogue that goes no further than that stagnates. For if we are to hear the truth in an authentic way we shall be transformed by that truth, no matter what its source is. Cobb (1982b p. 21) draws attention to a statement from a World Council of Churches consultation on dialogue with people of living faiths in 1971 which said ‘Dialogue thus involves the risk of one partner being changed by the other. It implies a readiness to receive an enrichment and enlargement.’ But Cobb adds that this radical conception of dialogue has not been taken up in subsequent WCC discussions. The WCC promotes dialogue, but it has not yet moved beyond it.
Cobb (1982b) believes that from major forms of Buddhism there is a challenge to Christians in the Buddhist concept that every belief in God is a form of clinging that blocks the achievement of the ultimate goal of Nirvana. He is likewise convinced that Buddhism can help the Christian to remove from the image of God elements of substance thinking (the substantialist prejudice) which would be a gain for the expression of Christian faith.
The history of the relationship of Christianity to the faith of Islam has mostly been one of confrontation. Today, more than ever, there is need for dialogue. The gulf may indeed be deep and wide between Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, but bridges have long existed between Christianity and Islam that could be opened up again to the mutual benefit of both and to the world (Cragg 1964).
Politics is a part of culture. Religion can seek to discover new depths in this aspect of life. Hence the new movements of ‘liberation theology’ and ‘political theology’. Liberation theology originated in the Third World where it finds its deepest expression in the midst of poverty and political oppression (Boff 1985). Political theology goes back to the Stoics; it was an expression of those religious practices which served the needs of the state (Cobb 1982b p. 2). Solle (1971) holds the view that ‘no one can be saved alone’ (p. 56). This echoes the emphasis of Reinhold Niebuhr in the postwar years that we cannot seek personal salvation in separation from the salvation of society from injustice. Solle followed her statement with a call for ‘the indivisible salvation of the whole world’. This could be a goal of political theology.
Much of the history of the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement that led to its formation has been concerned with social and political thought. Abrecht (1984) is one of many ecumenical leaders who judge that no ecumenically organized reflection on theology and social ethics has matched the quality and thoroughness of the 1937 meeting of the WCC on ‘Church Community and State in Relation to the Economic Order’ and its report of that title. Preston (1983) attributed much of its impact to the presence and influence of William Temple and Reinhold Niebuhr. They achieved a meeting of theology and social ethics that was trail-blazing. The ethicists who were to follow in more recent times have supposed that the issues of social ethics were so complex that only specialist ethicists could deal with them. Christian ethics split off from theology. Once it established itself as a separate discipline it largely ceased to re-examine its assumptions, as so often happens with disciplines. The results, as Cobb (1985 p. 128) points out, have been disastrous. This compartmentalization has been deeply contrary to the fundamental Christian understanding brought to ethics by Temple and Niebuhr. Liberation theology and political theology may eventually help to heal that breach.
A second fundamental requirement of the fruitful relation of Christian faith and social issues is emphasized by the Indian ecumenical leader M. M. Thomas (1984). No religious or ideological dogma, he argues, can acquire relevance in this dialogue ‘unless it shows a capacity to redefine and integrate within its framework the deepest aspiration of liberation which that culture has aroused in humankind . . . in order to do that religions including Christianity [also] need to be redefined’ (p. 320). This argument was made in criticism of Newbigin (1983) and is relevant to Newbigin (1986), who emphasizes Christian religion as dogma which confronts culture to change it but is not itself changed by that culture. The dialogue of religion with culture, be it with science or social issues or any other aspect of culture, is a two-way affair. To be effective it has to involve a two-way transformation, that of religion and that of the cultural elements concerned. When religion discovers the element of depth in culture it is itself transformed as well as transforming culture. That is authentic dialogue. Niebuhr was skeptical of anything more than ephemeral social gains in this process because the resolution of one problem seemed to lead to another arising which was just as difficult. Niebuhr serves as an antidote to false optimism. But today both liberation theology and political theology work in the real hope that ultimately a more just and a more peaceful world is possible. If we did not have that hope most of us would give up the struggle.
The contemporary movement of feminism calls for a response from religion. Indeed, much of it is a criticism of religion. Male domination is characteristic of all the major religions. All were founded by men and what they are today has been shaped by men. Jesus was a man. He chose men only as his disciples. He referred to God as father. Many churches today refuse to accept women as clergy. Does Christianity have to remain this way? Conservatives say yes. But if the movement of feminism points to a real disorientation of Christianity and if then Christianity is to find the element of depth in the movement of feminism, it must inevitably itself be transformed. So there are those, such as Cobb (1983b) and McFague (1987), who call for a reorientation of Christianity away from its dominantly male image. That is to assert that Christianity is a living movement that can become what it has not yet been. That is the meaning of any genuine encounter of religion with the new elements in culture.
Another aspect of modern culture which the church has not come to terms with is sexual behavior. Many of us were brought up with what we understood to be the one Christian view of sex: it is fine within the bonds of marriage but not otherwise. This code has little relation to what goes on in the wide world outside. A 1980 survey in a wide range of countries showed the proportion of adolescents reported to have experienced premarital intercourse varied from about 35 per cent (in France) to 80 per cent (among Kenyan males). For example, in the United States in the range 17-21 years of age some 77 per cent of males and 69 per cent of females had experienced premarital sex. In Australia, in the range 15-20 years of age the figures were 58 per cent for males and 47 per cent for females. In Kenya the figure for males up to age 19 years was 80 per cent. In Norway by age 19 some 57 per cent of Christian males and 72 per cent of non-Christian males had experienced premarital sex (Senderowitz & Paxman 1985 p. 8).
The moral teachings of the churches are out of step with cultural patterns of sexual behavior of youth. This does not mean that the church is wrong and modern youth is right. It does mean there is a gulf between attitudes. The church is not monolithic in its attitude today. Yet the official attitude of most churches reflects the simple moralism of sex within marriage alone. Others in the church are working for a more sympathetic and deeper view. This is well brought out in a debate within the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in the U.S.A. on moral sexual behavior expected of Christians and whether standards should be stricter for clergy than for lay people. The conservative view was put in an essay by Kirkley (1984). The broader questioning view was put by Cobb (1984), who concluded that the church was ready to think but not ready to legislate. Kirkley held to the status quo. One argued that the contemporary culture, particularly of youth, may be discovering a meaning of sex with positive elements that should be explored by religion. The other had nothing to learn from the changing culture.
Included in the change in cultural values concerning sex are contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. According to Coffin (1982), it is probably the most divisive issue in the U.S.A. since slavery split the church. This is because the once unmentionable has become unavoidable, because of cultural changes toward homosexuality. The history of the church is largely one of exclusion of those who are practicing homosexuals, whether that refers to ‘one night stands’ or lasting loving relationships. The ‘homosexual problem’ is really a ‘heterosexual problem’, just as the ‘woman problem’ is basically the problem of male sexism. It is the problem of the attitude of heterosexuals to people who are different. Coffin refers to four stances toward homosexuality: a rejecting -- punitive position, a rejecting -- nonpunitive position, conditional acceptance, and unconditional acceptance. The Jerry Falwells of the Christian ‘moral majority’ adopt the rejecting -- punitive stance. The appropriate questions to put to them is -- can a sexual bigot be a Christian and should the church ordain homophobes? The rejecting nonpunitive stance condemns homosexual acts but not the homosexual. The person is not to blame for his or her orientation but is to blame for homosexual acts. The stance of conditional acceptance is that all rights should be accorded homosexuals, including ordination, but they draw the line with public displays of gay affection and they would not be happy with a gay spouse in the vicarage. Coffin argues for the stance of absolute acceptance of the homosexual person as the one acceptable Christian attitude. Process theologian Pittenger (1967) argues for a similar position. And so have a number of other clergy, as for example ninety Episcopalian priests from the New York area who met to discuss the matter. ‘Christians,’ they said, ‘must re-think the usual position that has turned homosexuals into modern day lepers’ and ‘homosexual acts should be judged in each individual instance by whether the participants were expressing genuine love or simply "using" each other for selfish purposes (New York Times 20 November 1967 p. 1).
The stance of absolute acceptance should be based on something more substantial than the oft-quoted proposition which Shakespeare put into the mouth of a rather foolish old man, Polonius: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’. It is too easy to kid oneself about what is the true self. We need to discover what we think we are and then to rise above that. And for that we need an image of the human that goes beyond what we are. For Christians this is what they see Jesus and those who reflect him to be. Homosexuals are neither inferior nor superior to heterosexuals. They are different.
The attitude of absolute acceptance of homosexuals has been put into practice by a small number of churches. Religion in these churches is finding a depth it had not known before that works towards a transformation of both religion and this aspect of modern culture. I am familiar with four such churches in the U.S.A. and Australia: Riverside Church in New York with William Sloane Coffin as pastor, Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village in New York with Howard Moody as pastor, the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco with Cecil Williams and the Wayside Chapel of the Uniting Church in Kings Cross in Sydney which was founded and built under its first pastor, Ted Noffs. Absolute acceptance in each of these churches means that no person is excluded from the fellowship on any grounds at all.
The fellowship of these churches includes people excluded by other churches or who exclude themselves from other churches, which is really the same thing. Total acceptance of homosexuals means that no questions are asked and no-one is excluded because of sexual preference or sexual behavior. Each person is regarded as a normal human being seeking fulfillment. These churches believe it is important that individuals seek fulfillment, not in a ghetto but in a wider society of people. From time to time each of these churches has special programs dealing with homosexual concerns, such as police harassment and brutality. My involvement in the Wayside Chapel has convinced me that the total fellowship is the richer for practicing absolute acceptance. Some churches, notably Protestant churches in the Netherlands, have accepted homosexuals into the ordained ministry of the church.
However, the rejecting stance of most churches has led to the formation of homosexual churches, which is understandable but unfortunate. The attempts by these churches to become part of national councils of churches in both the U.S.A. and Australia, and doubtless elsewhere, have been rejected. The churches as a whole are obviously not yet ready to meet the homosexual person with total acceptance. That is a cultural and religious loss.
In the world today ‘success’ at any point means being completely adapted to circumstances which are passing from us. That is the situation the dinosaurs found themselves in. They flourished so long as their environment remained static. But they were unable to adapt to change that was pressing upon them. They became fossils. When a new kind of society and culture is emerging, it is not likely that the old will willingly disinherit much, if anything, of itself. It tries to make a new life out of what is left of the old. It may work desperately to keep the old wine in the old bottles. Or it may try to hold the old wine in new bottles. It never works. New wine needs new bottles to contain it.
Conformity and resistance to change is tantamount to acceptance of corruption because it is a state of participating in existing corruption and being subjected to it. It was religious conformism that threatened both Jesus and Socrates and brought them to their deaths. Our time has experienced many revolutionary transformations. Today we are reacting against further revolutions and transformations. ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within’ is Phillips’ (1947 p. 27) translation of Romans 12:2. There is a threefold directive in this passage: exercise judgment, offer resistance and strive to effect personal and universal transformation. The nonconformist must be prepared to risk ostracism, and in many countries today imprisonment or death, and as well the possibility of being wrong. Those who have transformed the world risked wrong decisions. The greater they were the more conscious were they of the risk. They took upon themselves the anxiety of doubt. One who risks and fails can be forgiven. One who never risks and never fails is a failure in his or her whole being, for their own forgiveness is never sought.
The call for a return to simple basics, be it in religion, morality, economics or politics is a call to retain the outmoded ways of the past. It is a call to reinforce the status quo and prevent change. ‘The defense of morals,’ said Whitehead (1942), ‘is the battle-cry which best rallies stupidity against change’ (p. 309). He went on to refer to a paradox concerning morals that the champions of morality are on the whole the fierce opponents of new ideals. Mankind,’ says Whitehead, ‘has been afflicted with low-toned moralists, objecting to expulsion from some Garden of Eden’ (p. 310). Every advance starts off from some assimiliated system of customs. It would have been no virtue for Adam and Eve to have spent the whole of their lives sitting under fruit trees in the garden. They learned a lot from their expulsion. To have returned later would have been an atavistic step. Fortunately they continued their exploration of life.
The theme of the seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1983 was ‘Jesus Christ, the Life of the World’ (Gill 1983). If that be a true statement, then Christians in particular have a unique contribution to make to the problems of the world. It is not simply to reflect the thinking of experts in the various disciplines. Rather it is their task to make their own unique analysis from a perspective unknown to the expert. The theme of that Assembly implied that the whole world -- its science, its politics, its art, its economics and its total management -- is the field of action for the churches. This role the churches are not fulfilling today. A major reason is that they are contributing to, rather than fighting against, the substantialist prejudice in which knowledge and understanding are divided into territories, some of which are religious and others secular. They have not seen themselves as seeking the element of depth in all these different areas of life. If they were to dig deep wells in the secular realms, is it not possible that they would find a great underground resource of water -- a reservoir of the water of life from which all draw? Or to change the metaphor, what we see as islands separated in an expanse of ocean are all connected under the ocean. But we concentrate our gaze on the distances between islands instead of their undersea continuity. We need more imagination to get out of our island mentality and to see the whole as one.
A central affirmation of this book is the presence of the future in life, that human life feeds on purpose. Richness of life depends upon purposes we freely choose. That which animates human life animates alike the rest of the entities of creation. The evidence of science leads to a view of the universe as purposive in the sense that its entities exist by virtue of a degree of freedom which allows them a degree of self-determination. In this postmodern ecological worldview the whole of the universe and its entities look more like life than like matter. The appropriate image is no longer the machine but the organism. This view is counter-intuitive if we concentrate on the thinginess of things. Our failure to see the world in ecological or organic terms is because we tend to reify everything in it. The modern worldview which was born in the sixteenth century and which dominates our thinking to this day tends to interpret everything from the bottom up. We think of the universe in terms of building blocks like bricks and try to put them together into a universe. And what we get of course is a contrivance without feeling, without life. That is the tragic consequence of the modern worldview.
The most important change in the postmodern worldview is to interpret from the top down. It is to regard human experience as a high-level example of the rest of reality. It turns the modern worldview upside down. The dominant tradition of Christianity in the last three centuries has been the opposite. Yet there always has been a stream of thought and life that rejected the mechanistic worldview. We find it in the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament, in the teaching of Jesus and elsewhere in the New Testament and in the writings of the church fathers. It has been retained more by the Eastern tradition of Christendom than by the Western tradition. Today it finds its fullest development in the mode of Christian thought known as process theology. True to its tradition, process theology seeks a close working with contemporary culture in all its manifestations.
Process theology has been a major preoccupation of American studies for the past fifty years. It has been a continuous challenge to the modern worldview derived from seventeenth century mechanism, eighteenth-century rationalism, nineteenth-century positivism and twentieth-century nihilism. That it is less known and less influential outside the U.S.A. is perhaps associated with a plethora of terms that accompanied its modern birth. The terminology is not a necessary part of the baggage of this mode of Christian thought. It is far more dependent upon images from the New Testament and organic images from physics and biology. And it is discovering the value of images in art as well (e.g. Odin 1984).
It is not a way of thought and life simply for an elite, though its appeal is naturally greatest for those whose experience of Christianity is incomplete until they have experienced an intellectual conversion. God speaks to the peasant working in the fields. And God speaks to the more philosophically disposed. Each finds a richness of experience. Each will be the same and yet different. The peasant doesn’t demand an intellectual justification. The philosopher does. It is popular these days for theologians living in rich cities to say that most of what they know they have learned from the poor. This is sometimes a sort of inverted snobbery, especially when those who say this spend so little time with the poor. Maybe the poor they meet are more authentic in their lives and really show what courage and dedication mean. I have lived most of my life with students in universities. Most of them are not peasants, though many of them would classify themselves as poor! Most of what I have learned has been from them. They are human beings who seem to me like anyone else who struggles to find meaning and richness in life. What I do know about students is that their inner need is not met by the purely emotive side of experience. They want in their heart of hearts an intellectual understanding of what they experience. Theirs is faith seeking understanding. This is what I understand theology to be all about. I can recall a discussion in which Paul Tillich said that theology was due to Greek philosophers who became Christians and couldn’t live as Christians without giving account of themselves in meaningful terms.
The take-home message of this book may be summed up in three words: passion, philosophy, program. Each is involved in the working out of purpose in human life. They are the three elements of religion: intuitive, cognitive and active:
Passion: the only appropriate response to faithful participation in that which matters most is with passion. It is Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling of unconditional dependence’, Tillich’s ‘with infinite passion’ and Jesus’ ‘with all your heart’. The existential or feeling side of life is intuitive.
Philosophy: the affective side of life seeks meaning in understanding, which is the cognitive and purposive side of life. It is Jesus’ ‘with all your mind’. Paul admonished Christians ‘do not be children in your thinking . . . in thinking be mature’ (1 Corinthians 14:20). This is philosophy and theology.
Program: the feeling and the cognitive side of life are sterile until they find an outcome in action. By their fruits you shall know them. This is the practical side of life worked out in a program for life. It is Jesus’ ‘with all your strength’.
To live is to feel, to think and to act. The call to the full life is to love with all our heart and mind and strength, these three. There is no more emphatic utterance in all scriptures than that. I know of no greater commitment that life can make.