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Building in the wreckage: the reconstruction of Christian theology

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 9 April 2014


My last piece in these pages indicated, after David Bentley Hart, that the present day is marked by "the creation of a fully developed, imaginatively compelling, and philosophically sophisticated tradition of metaphysical nihilism." This is the end result of what MacIntyre called the "modern project". This is not the end of history but the end of modernity. While the last essay attempted to clear the field, in this essay I will attempt to offer a few pointers as to how the church could be rebuilt in the ruins of the modern project.

My suggestion was that far from opposing the conclusion that god does not exist as a being in the universe, the Church should recognize its truth and that in the modern era it has, by and large, built its theology on false foundations. For example theology cannot begin with an attempt to prove the existence of God from nature or logic i.e. the existence of God cannot be built on foundations external to the God that Christians worship. If we do this we only get an abstraction of our own making that essentially leaves the field to atheism.

Such foundations are a part of the modern project that has now been shown to be empty. It turns out rationality alone often leads us into dead ends and wrong conclusions. Anti-foundationalist theology recognizes that when evidence for the existence of God is found apart from God revealing Himself to humanity then the living God that Christians worship is lost.

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The great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth understood this and refused evidence from nature as a support for the existence of God in his famous rejection of natural theology. Any attempt to build Christian theology in the wastelands of modern nihilism must abjure all foundations other than the event of Jesus who is the Christ. The final meltdown of modernity to nihilism becomes the building place for doing theology anew. What has been called postmodernity, for want of a better name, is not the enemy of theology but clears a space for its retrieval and renewal.

What would such a theology look like? Firstly, it would abandon any idea that the thinking individual may come to clear and certain truths by means of his own reason. Descartes' promise has turned out to be absurd. The "reason" that this theology will use will hark back to Anselm's "faith seeking understanding". In doing so it will recognize that skepticism cannot be the starting place for talk about God. Rather, talk about God exists in a tradition into which one must insert oneself. Rather than seeking the unknown, as does the modern scientist, one seeks to understand that which is known in a radically new way.

Theological language progresses by recognition rather than deduction. The players in the New Testament recognize Jesus as the Christ and this happens to the most unlikely men and women. There is something in Jesus that is overwhelmingly appealing that once one has encountered Him then everything changes, it is the end of a world. There are no foundations here, only an overwhelming beauty. It was this beauty that was the death knoll of the ancient gods.

It goes without saying that doing theology anew demands that we turn our back on the isolated and distanced god of the first cause that has a plan for the universe. This speculative deity, that only exists because we need an explanation as to why there is anything at all, is displaced by Christ who becomes the origin of all things. The Monarchical monotheism that is the result of our philosophical speculations about God is shown not to be the God that Christians worship. This is replaced by a thoroughgoing emphasis on God as the Triune Identity.

The arithmetical denial of the Trinity that 1+1+1=3 belongs to positivist modernity and misses the point, the Father is only the Father as He is the Father of the Son and the Spirit is only the Spirit in that she is the love between the Father and the Son. This construction exists in its own rationality and is the interpretative key that tells us who God reveals himself to be.

You can see how the presuppositions of modernity are denied here. The positivism is absent. Facts and deductions may carry us somewhere in our investigation of the physical world but have a different place when talking about God. It is important that the man Jesus lived and died in Palestine and his circumstances sometimes throw light on the biblical witness to him.

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However, these are always secondary to our encounter with Him. This encounter, rather than being an argument based on logic or evidence, is an encounter with the ultimately attractive, the beautiful. It is also an encounter that proceeds to fill itself out in all directions so that the whole world is included.

Thus a lens is created through which the world makes sense, not in terms of physical interactions and causes but in terms of what it means to be alive in the world, i.e. existentially. While natural science may give us, within limits, an accurate understanding of how the world works, the gospel illuminates a truth of a different kind to do with the health of the soul or psyche.

The much vaunted conflict between science and religion is based on a category mistake. Theology does not pretend to tell us about the physical world, it tells us about what it is like for humanity to live in such a world. As ChristosYannaras has written in relation to the two claims on human life "If Darwinian anthropology becomes the self-evident basis of the social sciences, the existential enigma of otherness can be set aside." What we are left with is a theory of causation that does not address us as beings hovering on the brink of nothingness.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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