This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three Christian "Cosmologists:"
Karl Barth, Langdon Gilkey, and Kathryn Tanner
Robert A. Cathey
Section I: Barth
Here is a letter from a granduncle to his grandniece written thirty years ago:
Basel [Switzerland], 18 Feb. 1965
You have had to wait a terribly long time for an answer to your letter of 13 Dec.--not because of indifference, for I am sincerely interested in your welfare, and that of your mother and sisters, and am always pleased to have good news from Zollikofen [near Bern, Switzerland].
Has no one explained to you in your seminar that one can as little compare the biblical creation story and a scientific theory like that of evolution as one can compare, shall we say, an organ and a vacuum-cleaner--that there can be as little question of harmony between as of contradiction?
The creation story is a witness to the beginning or becoming of all reality distinct from God in the light of God's later acts and words relating to his people Israel--naturally in the form of a saga or poem. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the same reality in its inner nexus--naturally in the form of a scientific hypothesis.
The creation story deals only with the becoming of all things, and therefore with the revelation of God, which is inaccessible to science as such. The theory of evolution deals with what has become, as it appears to human observation and research and as it invites human interpretation. Thus one's attitude to the creation story and the theory of evolution can take the form of an either/or only if one shuts oneself off completely from faith in God's revelation or from the mind (or opportunity) for scientific understanding.
So tell the teacher concerned that she should distinguish what is to be distinguished and not shut herself off completely from either side.
My answer comes so late because on the very day you wrote, 13 Dec., I had a stroke and had to spend several weeks in the hospital.
With sincere greetings which you may also pass on to your mother and sisters,
In this case the granduncle was Karl Barth, the most important Protestant theologian of this century. This brief letter (Barth: 1981:184), written three years before Barth's death in 1968, offers a fine example of how Barth understood the relation between evolutionary cosmology and the Christian doctrine of creation. Barth's own account of the relation between science and theology, or cosmology and creation, also shows some important trends in how Christian theologians in this century have dealt with issues of cosmology, evolution, and science.
Barth's account of the relation of cosmology and creation may be summarized in terms of a non-aggression treaty between the domains of science and theology. Science has its domain, subject matter, and limits. Its proper methods are calculation and speculation. Theology has its domain, subject matter, and limits. Its proper method is listening to the witness to revelation found in the Bible, as interpreted by the Christian Church across time and in the present day. As long as each sticks to its own realm, border disputes or conflicts can be avoided.
I begin with Barth's influence on theology and his cosmology because Barth's story helps to explain why Christian theology in this century has been relatively disinterested in cosmology and science in comparison, say, to theology in the nineteenth century, or theology in the thirteenth century. One result of Barth's non-aggression treaty is that theologians under the influence of Barth, e.g., his early allies like Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and Emil Brunner, and his students like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Torrance, Hans Küng, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, were deeply concerned about the interpretation of the Bible and theology's role within the life and mission of the Christian churches. By comparison, theology under Barth's influence was less concerned about taking the history and development of science or cosmology as subject matter for doing theology today. Sometimes Barth's non-aggression treaty between theology and science seemed to play itself out as a false segregation of theology and science. Therefore, when new breakthroughs occurred in cosmology in recent years, most scholars in Christian theology have not been very well prepared to comment either positively or negatively.
But why and how did Barth reach his position of non-aggression or segregation between cosmology and creation? The story begins with Barth's student days in Switzerland and Germany in the first decade of this century.
Barth was the son of a Swiss Protestant theologian who was fairly conservative for his day. The nineteenth century in Christian theology in western Europe was the great era of Protestant Liberalism. The German Liberals in theology, as they were called, were children of the philosophy, science, and politics of the Enlightenment of the 1700s. They were concerned with bringing Christianity into step with the progress of modern culture, education, and science. This goal was so important to them that they adopted what is called an accomodationist or apologetic approach to the relation between culture and theology. Where modern culture could still identify with Christian values, morality, piety, and influence, there they found the heart of the gospel. Where modern culture found Christianity to be antiquated, outdated, out of step with history, science, or politics, those outdated doctrines and practices from the Middle Ages, the Reformation, or the era of Protestant pietism or revivalism were to be left behind. As a result, the Liberals were extremely interested in reconciling Christian doctrine with the progress of modern science. In particular, they strongly advocated scholarly projects like the historical and critical study of the Bible and the history of Christianity, the quest for the historical Jesus, and a portrayal of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as hopelessly outdated, medieval, and Byzantine in light of the progressive, optimistic spirit of modern culture.
The Liberals sought to wed the best of two worlds, their Christian heritage as western Europeans and the new modern spirit of Enlightenment and progress. By the late nineteenth century this new spirit in theology had worked itself down to the masses in what was called the "social gospel movement." Protestant Liberals in Europe and North America were confident that the marriage of Christianity and modern culture would enable them to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. "God and science reconciled," in the words of one commentator, would show the way to utopia. The Christian civilization of the west would spread globally through European and American colonialism and the missionary movement to unite all persons on earth with God as their father and the historical Jesus as their brother in the spirit of progress.
Barth was educated by the brightest liberal minds of his day, including Adolf von Harnack, the great historian of the University of Berlin, and Ernst Troeltsch, an historian of Christian ethics and a philosopher of history. As a university student, he became a member of the Christian socialist movement, one expression of the social gospel movement of the day. He returned to his native Switzerland to become a pastor in the small working class town of Safenwil, where he became known as "the red pastor" because of his solidarity with workers in the local mines.
The movement of liberalism, and the theology of the young Barth, collided in 1914 with the first World War. The human capacity for violence and social destruction on a massive scale was unleashed across the most advanced technological nations on earth. In the early days of the war, Barth discovered to his horror that all his former teachers of theology had signed a statement supporting the German war effort. Barth's confidence in the liberal theology of his teachers and in the so-called progress of western Christian civilization was shattered. Along with others, he began to ask whether and how God speaks in the twentieth century. In the language of war? of violence? or elsewhere?
Barth's answer exploded upon the Christian world in his first book, The Epistle to the Romans(1919) in which Barth called upon his fellow Christians to abandon the accomodationist and apologetic strategy of the liberals and begin to listen anew for the word of God in the Bible.
Barth once told a group of his students that, "If I understand what I am trying to do in [my theology], it is to listen to what Scripture is saying and tell you what I hear."2 In this country he was quickly dismissed by the Protestant liberal establishment as a "fundamentalist," although he was also rejected by the fundamentalists as a liberal clothed in the language of the Bible. Because his position was such a radical departure from both the liberal and fundamentalist movements of his day, he began to attract the attention of younger students and scholars from around the world.
To understand Barth's theology, and his doctrine of creation or the cosmos, we must talk about what Barth presupposes and the nature of presuppositions.3
Every form of human inquiry, whether in mathematics, geometry, physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, etc., begins with certain presuppositions or assumptions; i. e., one cannot ask a single question unless one presupposes something as a reliable means of asking questions. Every question presupposes that language is a reliable means of exploring reality, even when we know that we can make mistakes in using language. So theology as a form of human inquiry which asks questions about God also begins with certain presuppositions.
An interesting correspondence occurs between theologies in three different religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Of course, Christianity and Islam are the two most numerous and influential religions in the world today. Both claim to be rooted in Judaism, in the relationship begun by God with two persons of the ancient Near East named Abraham and Sarah. The correspondence is this: they all share one presupposition. It may be found in the theological writings of all three of these traditions over time, in the Torah of the Jews, the Bible of the Christians, and the Quran of the Muslims, as well in the millions of pages of commentary written to explain these sacred writings.
The presupposition is that the only way human beings may have reliable knowledge of that which is most important, or God, is for God to communicate with humanity somehow, somewhere, through someone.
As a presupposition, this principle is logically prior to proof for the nature of presuppositions is that we prove other things by them. Presuppositions state the conditions of our knowledge, but themselves are not subject to proof unless we cease to presuppose them and test them by other presuppositions.
One may make this presupposition or not. Why one presupposes this principle or not will depend on many things: the story one tells about one's life, where one come from, who one's family is, what one has read, what has happened in one's life, etc. In other words, there is a certain relativity to why some make this presupposition and others do not. We live in a fragmented, broken world where we often disagree with each other, and hopefully agree to disagree. There is no science, no technology, no ideology, no philosophy, no religion that commands reasons and evidence that persuade everyone all of the time of their truth. To put this more simply, no one knows reality from the perspective of a goddess or a god. All humans do their knowing and believing from a point of view which is limited, historical, dependent, and relative to the language, concepts, and experience at hand.
But if one has an interest for whatever reason in asking questions about God and the cosmos, then the witness of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is that without this presupposition one cannot go anywhere. For all Jews, Christians, and Muslims, we may know something about God and the cosmos because God has acted to communicate with humanity beginning with Abraham and Sarah and continuing with the prophets in all ages, including Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.
For Christians this presupposition takes on a very specific and historical form. The only way we may have reliable knowledge about God is because God has communicated with humanity in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a first century Jew. For Christians that communication is found in the Bible as a book which bears testimony to the life of the people of God named Israel, to Jesus as a son of Israel, and to the Church as a community of Jews and Gentiles traveling together through history. For Christians this communication continues in the forms of life called "Church," which include worship, prayer, praise, preaching, the sacraments, teaching, doing works of love, witnessing to the Good News, and standing in solidarity with other Christians locally and globally.
One still may wonder, but is it reasonable to make this presupposition? As already noted, such presuppositions are by nature beyond proof. But instead of a proof, here is an analogy. In thinking about cosmology we have all wondered, are there other planets with intelligent life with whom we may communicate someday? Given the vast distances between the stellar systems and galaxies, how could we ever hope to have a reliable answer to the question of whether there are other intelligent forms of life? It has taken centuries to bridge the distance between the earth and the moon. How long before travel to the stars is possible? At this point in time, one may begin by presupposing that the only way human beings may have reliable knowledge of other intelligent forms of life, is for those forms of life to communicate with humanity somehow, somewhere, through someone. Astronomers have in the past few decades begun listening for the first time to see if they can intercept and decode any communication from other stellar systems that may provide evidence of other intelligent forms of life. And even more wonderful is the fact that for several decades we have been broadcasting out through space our own communication signals in a simple code which we hope other intelligent forms of life will intercept and decipher someday. If they can bridge the stellar gap, then maybe they will show up to visit planet earth.
Christian theologians are scholars who hold that the gap between humanity and God has already been bridged from God's side of the gap by what occurred in the history of Israel, Jesus, and the community called church. Barth calls this bridging of the divine/human gap "revelation" and he locates it in the Bible, in the sacraments like baptism and holy communion, and in the preaching ministry of the Christian churches.
With this background, we now turn to Barth's understanding of cosmos and creation as summarized in his lectures, "God the Creator" and "Heaven and Earth," translated in Dogmatics in Outline (1959). These two lectures come from a series he gave immediately after World War II in the ruins of the University of Bonn in newly constituted West Germany. The lectures began at 7 A.M. each morning. Barth took as the subject matter of these lectures the so-called Apostles' Creed which is one of the oldest and most widely used creeds among Catholics and Protestants. In his exposition of the phrase of the Creed, "I believe in God. . . maker of heaven and earth," Barth packs into two brief lectures what he took 414 pages to say in his magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics (1958).
The first thing to underscore about Barth's cosmology is that he does not believe that the Christian faith or Judaism are cosmological religions. Neither Christianity nor Judaism began in history with belief in God the Creator. Investigation into the history of the Old Testament had already uncovered that the faith of ancient Israel began with Moses and the Exodus event, or with Abraham and Sarah's departure from the city of Ur for the land of Canaan where ancient Israel believed God made a covenant with Abraham. Investigation into the history of the New Testament had already uncovered that the faith of the early Church began with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, not the belief that Jesus was the Word of God that created all things according to the first chapter of John's gospel. To put this in other terms, both Judaism and Christianity began historically as religions of redemption or liberation from slavery, evil, and sin. Later, faith in God or Christ as the Creator of all things appeared as those redeemed ascribed the physical cosmos to the work of their redeemer. Therefore, Barth writes about creation from a perspective that is centered on God's activity in covenant-making with Israel and in Jesus.
This gives to Barth's account of creation and cosmos a christocentric or Christ-centered and an anthropocentric or human-centered quality. In other words, Barth argues that God's purpose in creating the vast depths of the cosmos in time and space all centers on the small sliver of time that unfolded in the history of ancient Israel, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, and the creation of the Church. From a secular or atheistic perspective on the cosmos, that seems too good to be true. Why would God create so vast a cosmos covering billions of years of time and millions of light years in size just for the sake of a series of events in a corner of the ancient near east?
From a Christian perspective on the cosmos, this christocentric and anthropocentric quality of Barth's account has a salutary affect. Since at least the time of the French Catholic mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), scholars have voiced their dread that the new picture of the cosmos that emerged from Galileo and his successors was an alien and hostile place for human beings in which we are swallowed up and thus become of little account on the cosmic scale of things. Given the vast size and history of the cosmos, why do we expend so much effort as a species trying to survive and better the quality of life for fellow members of our species? From the perspective of the new picture of the cosmos, why concern ourselves with finding a cure for cancer, or AIDS, or saving the natural environment since our species and our planet are only a brief moment in the history of the cosmos? Why not eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die? The materialism, hedonism, and violence of contemporary American culture makes secular and atheistic sense in a cosmos where we are so tiny and insignificant.
Barth's response is that the vast cosmos in which we live was created by God for the sake of the covenant begun with Israel and fulfilled in Jesus.
Creation comes first in the series of works of the triune God, and is thus the beginning of all things distinct from God Himself. Since it contains in itself the beginning of time, its historical reality eludes all historical observation and account, and can be expressed in the biblical creation narratives only in the form of pure saga. But according to this witness the purpose and therefore the meaning of creation is to make possible the history of God's covenant with man which has its beginning, its center and its culmination in Jesus Christ. The history of this covenant is as much the goal of creation as creation itself is the beginning of this history. (Barth 1958:III/1:41)
Therefore, for Barth the size, history, and complexity of the cosmos are "the theater of [God's] glory," the same God who entered a covenant relation with Israel that was fulfilled in Jesus. The immensity of the cosmos does not render humanity insignificant because the same God who created all things also entered into human history in Israel, Jesus, and the Church in order to make deity known to humans and in order to fulfill human creations.
Thus, Barth provides a theological response to two major cosmological questions concerning the place of humanity in the universe--how does all this relate to us and the meaning of existence--what is the purpose of it all?
The second thing to underscore about Barth's account is that he refuses to appeal to science or scientific cosmology to prove that God created all things as "the theater of His glory."Barth was a sharp critic of both natural theology and liberal apologetics for Christianity. Natural theology is the theological tradition going back to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas which offers reasons, evidence, or arguments for the existence of God as Creator of all things. The reasons, evidence, or arguments offered are presented on the assumption that any rational person, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist, or agnostic, should be able to infer from the design of the cosmos that it must have a divine designer. Barth was aware that the philosophers of the Enlightenment like David Hume and Immanuel Kant had undermined these arguments as rational proofs of the existence of God. But he was more concerned that the use of these arguments by Christian theologians from Aquinas down to this century betrayed a lack of confidence in theology's own grounds for the knowledge of God, the revelation in Israel, Jesus, and the Church. Thus, rather than argue that human rationality can infer from scientific data that God designed and created all things, Barth appeals to revelation and faith in God's word as the only adequate grounds to affirm God created all things.
This strong critique of natural theology had both a positive and negative affect. On the one hand, Barth refuses to enslave theology to the changing currents of scientific and philosophical speculation. From Barth's perspective, it ultimately does not matter whether cosmologists invoke God as a factor in their accounts of events like the Big Bang or not. Theology's talk of God as Creator does not rise or fall on the basis of the most recent scientific calculations. When Christians engaged in science find evidence of design, beauty, harmony, or purpose in nature, e.g., the anthropic principle of contemporary cosmologists, they ascribe those phenomena to God to whom they give glory. But they should not claim to have found the basis for their faith in God as Creator or rational proofs that should persuade anyone, with or without faith.
On the other hand, Barth's refusal of natural theology played itself out as a decline of interest in nature and especially the history and practice of science as subject matter for theology. This is reflected in Barth's very language to describe God and nature in his theology. Barth's language is drawn from the realm of human personal relations. He speaks of God as the divine Subject who enters into relationship with individual human subjects. He speaks of nature in the language of the Bible or church theologians from the ancient to early modern era. He does not incorporate the concepts of scientific language into his vocabulary for God and nature. Thus he never speaks at length of God or nature in terms of energy, fields of force, evolution, or process.
The third thing to underscore about Barth's account is that he speaks of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 in terms of the language of saga rather than myth. For Barth the concept of myth implies talk of timeless realities and recurring cycles in nature and human life. The world view of myth is of a cyclical cosmos where gods and goddesses are invoked to explain and insure the fertility of nature and human beings. Barth recognizes that the biblical writers were free to borrow the language of myth from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. But he finds that language put to radically different purposes in the Bible. The word "saga" in general means a history-like account that may or may not be historical itself. In the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 he finds a saga of God's creation of all things, including time itself, as a once and for all event in the beginning. Such an event no science or history could ever detect because it describes the beginning of time itself, as well as space, and all energy and matter. For Barth, the beginning described in Genesis 1 is an event more primordial than the Big Bang. It was the creation of all that exists out of nothing at all. Such an event is never imagined in the myths of the ancient Near East nor the cosmologies of modern science. Such an event can only be portrayed in the poetic language of saga for human beings have never experienced nor do we know how to create something from nothing. Such an event could only be known by humans by means of revelation received in faith. Only God could communicate with us through human witnesses about the beginning no creature could ever witness. The fact that this beginning is narrated in the poetic language of saga does not provide an excuse to demythologize the Bible, to use the term of Barth's early ally Rudolf Bultmann. For no scientific cosmology could give access to knowledge about the ultimate beginning of all things out of nothing, from which vantage point we could demythologize Genesis 1 and 2. Human science is always worked out in the categories of space and time and thus can never describe the origins of space-time itself.
The fourth thing to underscore about Barth's account is his understanding of heaven and earth. In the biblical language of heaven and earth, Barth does not find a cosmology of a three-story universe with hell below, earth in the middle, and heaven above. In fact Barth believes that the Bible and Christian faith treat all cosmologies or world-life views as relative to certain times and places but never enjoins any one as part of the content of faith. Instead, for Barth (1959:61) "Heaven is the creation inconceivable to man; earth is the creation conceivable to him. . . . When we have reached what to us is inconceivable, we have not yet reached God, but merely heaven." Thus there is both a visible creation which can be seen and comprehended and a invisible creation which can neither be seen nor comprehended. The error of human being is to identify God or the divine with the invisible creation we cannot see or comprehend. We tend to go to the limits of our concepts or understanding and on the other side of that limit posit God. But Barth's point is that the God who created all things out of nothing is greater than both what we can conceive and what we cannot conceive. The realm of invisible creation is not yet the being of God but the realm of those good and evil powers, the angels and demons spoken of in the biblical language of saga.
Concluding this section on Barth, what advantage does his understanding of cosmos as
creation offer? First, by his non-aggression treaty between theology and science, Barth
leaves the cosmologist and the evolutionary biologist free to pursue their science without
fear of invasion or imperialism on the part of theology. Second, Barth frees theology from
the vain attempt to prove the existence of God as Creator from the evidence of nature and
science. Barth recalls theology from attempting to demonstrate its truth to unbelief in
order to found it anew in revelation and faith, and trust that God is never left without a
witness even among the most secular-minded atheists. Third, Barth affirms the grandeur and
scope of the cosmos as a place which has its meaning and purpose grounded in a very local
and particular history, in Israel, Jesus, and the Church. Barth has a response to the
questions, how do things originate and what will happen in the end? Or, where did the
cosmos come from and where is it going? Both the origins and destiny of the cosmos are
rooted in the covenant between God and Israel fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Fourth and
finally, Barth affirms the reality of the cosmos in spite of the ancient and modern human
dream that all is illusion, for God has become a creature in space and time in Jesus of
Nazareth, thus proving for faith the reality of spatial, temporal, and historical
Section 2: Gilkey
As a young Baptist student of theology at Harvard University and Union Theological Seminary in New York, Langdon Gilkey was deeply influenced by Barth's theology. However, Gilkey eventually came to have his doubts about the theological movement called "neo-orthodoxy" or "the biblical theology movement" which prevailed from 1945-1965 in western Europe and North America. Gilkey (1961) expressed those doubts in his seminal essay, "Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language." Although he never mentions Barth in this essay, the type of theological thinking he criticizes was influenced by and deeply indebted to Barth.
For Gilkey the problem with the use of the Bible in the type of theology Barth inspired was that it had no clear concept of the "act of God," or the activity of God. In other words, when Barth grounds the knowledge of God on faith in God's revelation in Israel, Jesus, and the Church, the concept of "revelation" becomes ambiguous and vague. Does revelation mean that God spoke in an audible voice to Abraham, Moses, and the ancient prophets of Israel? If so, why does God not speak that way today? Does revelation mean that God acted in miracles to part the Red Sea, have Jesus conceived by a virgin, and raised from the dead? If so, why does God not act in such stunning miracles today? If theology has little to say about God's activity in the ongoing, evolutionary course of nature, how can theology know what it means when it speaks of God's extraordinary acts in biblical history? If theology is confident about tracing the hand of God in the history of ancient Israel and Palestine, why has no theologian produced an account of the hand of God in the two great world wars of this century?
Gilkey was haunted by questions like this for the concept of a God who acts in history was central to the type of theology Barth inspired. Yet Barth's students were just as open as the Liberals to historical-critical readings of the Bible that noted the elements of ancient cosmology and mythology in the Bible's language and interpretations of history. Gilkey was convinced that no one who participates in our modern advanced technological society, say, the theologian who takes a flight on a jet plane or who sees a physician about her health, can avoid the world view and implications of science and its cosmology. Therefore, from Gilkey's perspective, Barth's non-aggression treaty between theology and science was in fact a segregation that allowed theologians to say things about the past that they could not integrate with a modern scientific understanding of reality. That meant theology needed to engage in the very cosmological and ontological speculation that Barth said was not the concern of theology. In other words, Gilkey saw the need for a new integration of cosmology, ontology, and theology, but realized no contemporary theologian in 1961 had worked out such an integration. Only when general concepts like activity in space and time had become defined in light of modern cosmology and ontology could the theologian come to a clearer understanding of the God revealed in Israel, Jesus, and the Church.
The effect of Gilkey's essay and other theologians who began to express their doubts
about Barth's theology in the early 1960s led to a period of experimentation in modern
theology that is not yet over. Since 1965 Christian theology has found many new and
different voices each claiming a new integration of modern culture and the Gospel, but
none have carried the day. Christian theology today is a fragmented collection of
theologies which continue to proliferate. The 1960s saw "death of God" theology,
the birth of Latin American theology of liberation, black theology, feminist theology, and
other theologies of liberation. Theologians influenced by Gilkey experimented with the
process ontology of Hegel, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne. Others like
Gilkey himself attempted to create a neoliberal theology following the writings of Barth's
former ally, Paul Tillich. More recently there has appeared a postliberal or postmodern
theology that criticizes modernity itself. At the same time conservative evangelical and
fundamentalist theologies have caught a second wind and have made new inroads into the
religious life of North America. Finally, the conversation between theologians and
scientists has been renewed. But this conversation may be an exercise in the same old
accommodation of Christianity to modern culture with theologians seeking new versions of
the proof of God's existence from design in the new cosmologies.
Section 3: Tanner
In the midst of the cacophony of contemporary theology, a few younger theologians are beginning to distinguish themselves. Kathryn Tanner is a graduate and former faculty member of Yale University and Divinity School. She now teaches at the University of Chicago. In God and Creation in Christian Theology (1988) she provides an analysis of why Christian talk about God as Creator is so easily subject to distortion in the modern world from the late 1400s down to the present. She also provides what she calls a "strategy for faithfulness" that would overcome this distortion.
Tanner's approach is distinctive for she works out an interpretation of doctrinal sentences like "God is the Creator of heaven and earth" as grammatical rules for Christian speech. In other words, however a theologian may specify the ontological or referential content of the sentence, "God is the Creator of heaven and earth," such a sentence also functions like a rule for how to speak in a Christian community.
This grammatical approach to doctrinal sentences incorporates a certain kind of theological agnosticism, or negative approach to the knowledge of God. According to Tanner (1988:11-12):
Theologians seem to know that it is appropriate to say certain things about God without quite knowing what they mean by doing so. . . . theologians may claim to know thattheir statements refer to God and are true of God's nature, but they do not claim to know in what way they refer or how they are true. . . . On this apophatic or agnostic reading, theological statements are not conveying information about God so much as they are suggesting how to talk in circumstances where we do not pretend to understand fully what we are saying.8
Theological agnosticism is not a new development coming out of the death of God theology of the 1960s. It in fact has very ancient and venerable roots in what is called the apophatic stream in Christian theology, going back to the Cappadocians of the 300s and Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s. The apophatic stream emphasizes the transcendence and hiddenness of God, a theme in both the Old and New Testaments.
Tanner (1988:12) then qualifies her approach in this way:
Although the referential character of theological discourse is crucial to the whole enterprise (what would be the point of doing theology if one were not really talking about God?), the informational vacuity of such talk would shift the focus of someone investigating it away from epistemological questions of truth and meaning. Theologians simply assume that what they say about God is meaningful and true: they have no way of actually specifying what they are talking about. . . apart from the meanings of the terms they use and it is just those meanings whose applicability to God they admit to failing to understand.
Theological agnosticism turns the focus of theological interpretation toward the practical effects of speaking of God in one way and not another. When Christians speak of God as "Creator of heaven and earth," what kinds of forms of life are they encouraging and what behaviors are they prohibiting?
With this pragmatic orientation, Tanner has found two rules based on her analysis of Christian speech about God and creation in the writings of Christian theologians over the centuries. Tanner's first rule has to do with the transcendence of God as a rule of speech: "whatever you say about God and world, do not simply identify or oppose their attributes" (1988:28). Do not simply identify them or you will confuse God with the world or the world with God, thus violating the concept that God transcends the world. Do not simply oppose the attributes of God and the world either, for then you make it impossible to speak of how the transcendent God creates or acts in the world or relates to the world.
Tanner's second rule has to do with God's activity, the concept addressed by Gilkey's concern about Barth's type of theology: "avoid in talk about God's creative agency all suggestions of limitation in scope or manner" (1988:47). Or put in positive terms, "God's creative agency" should be spoken of "as immediate and universally extensive" (1988:47).
From these two rules Tanner then develops six sub-rules that apply to certain expressions in God-talk.2 Her point is that when we speak of agency or activity as human beings, we can specify what we mean in terms of finite agents in space and time. E.g., science can enable us to discover the finite causes of events in space and time. But when we speak of divine agency, we cannot fully specify what we mean for we cannot know exactly how an infinite agent works. Thus when the early Christian theologians spoke of God's creation of the world ex nihilo, out of nothing, they were setting off God's infinite agency from all finite agency. By the nature of the case we cannot know how God creates all things out of nothing. Similarly, we cannot know how God raises the dead, speaks to the prophets, or guides the history of evolution to the appearance of the human species. Under the grammar of Christian discourse, Tanner (1988:99) says that "one is permitted to talk of God's bringing to be created effects without sufficient created causes for them." Thus God is free to act in both ordinary and extraordinary ways. We may believe that God acts as we learn to speak and act in the forms of Christian life. But we cannot specify how God acts because as finite beings we cannot explain the ways of an infinite activity.
Tanner shows how the very modes of modern discourse from the Renaissance to today make it highly difficult to follow the two basic rules and the six sub-rules for talk of God's creative activity. She shows how modern discourse exhibits a "drive towards 'decontextualization.'" For modern humanity Tanner (1988:124) believes that "truth is to be sought by holding in abeyance the prejudices of place, the traditions of the past, and the authority of books." Moderns seek to confront the truth about things in terms of so-called "brute facts" which reveal themselves to rationality from a universal point of view. "The world is to appear for once as it is 'in itself,' independent of any context supplied by traditional belief, independent in particular of any religious reference to God" (Tanner 1988:124).
One implication of decontextualization is the loss of a cosmic dimension to human self-understanding. Tanner (1988:124) says that "A modern sensibility no longer views persons in a broad context of social, cosmic, and divine relationships." Thus it seems natural in the framework of the modern world not to sense our connections to the natural environment, social traditions, or God.
The decontextualized character of modern discourse is matched by its presupposition of
naturalism. According to Tanner (1988:124) this means that "the reason of the world
is. . . the reason within things, the reason of immanent law. Explanation
of what exists proceeds not by way of a transcendent reference but with reference only to
what is also in and of the world according to principles manifested by the visible
intra-worldly connections of proximate and particular causes." Once one adopts the
presupposition of naturalism, whether consciously or unconsciously, the problem of divine
agency that Gilkey specified becomes acute. For one cannot appeal to divine agency in
terms of the history of cosmic and biological evolution if all explanations by the nature
of the case must be internal to the order of nature itself.
I end with an observation about what is at stake in the theological discussion of
divine agency initiated by Gilkey and furthered by Tanner. The issue of divine agency is
important to an understanding of cosmology and creation because contemporary scientific
cosmology tempts some to adopt a new form of Deism, the rational religion of the
eighteenth century intellectuals and politicians who believed God had created nature like
a gigantic clock, wound it up, and left it to run down by itself without interference. If
the new astrophysical cosmology encourages the thought of God as the detonator of the Big
Bang who has left nature to run down by itself, then such a concept of God is irrelevant
to answering some of the most basic questions of cosmology: what is the purpose of the
cosmos? What is the significance of human beings within the cosmos? Christian cosmologists
like Barth, Gilkey, and Tanner find compelling responses to these questions in the
Christian doctrine of creation which leaves science free to discover new insights into the
theater of God's glory.
Barth, Karl. 1919. Römerbrief. The Epistle to the Romans. Translated by E. C. Hoskyns. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.
__________. 1958-1961. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation, vol. III, parts 1-4, translated by J. W. Edwards et al. and edited by G. W. Broimley and T. F. Torrance, eds. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
__________. 1959. Dogmatics in Outline, translated by G. T. Thomson. New York: Harper & Row.
__________. 1981. Karl Barth: Letters, 1961-1968, edited by Jürgen Fangmeier and Hinrich Stoevesandt, translated and edited by Geoffrey Bromiley. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Ford, D. F. 1979. "Barth's Interpretation of the Bible." In Karl Barth--Studies of his Theological Method, edited by S. W. Sykes. Oxford: Clarendon.
Gilkey, Langdon. 1961. "Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language," Journal of Religion 41:194-205. Reprinted in Owen C. Thomas, ed., God's Activity in the World: The Contemporary Problem, AAR Studies in Religion No. 31 (Chico, Cal.: Scholars Press, 1983), 29-43.
Tanner, Kathryn. 1988. God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or
Empowerment? Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
1. Quoted from R. C. Johnson, "The Legacy of Karl Barth," Reflection (New Haven, Conn.) 66/4 (May 1969), 4 in Ford 1979:55.
2. Beneath these two general rules for talk of God, world, and God's action, Tanner finds a series of sub-rules that apply to certain expressions in God-talk. They include the following:
<1A> The theologian should talk of created efficacy [the power, operation, and efficacy of created beings] as immediately and entirely grounded in the creative agency of God (1988:91).
<1B> God's creative agency must be said to found a created cause in the very operations by which it proves sufficient to produce an effect within the created order. The whole of a created effect must be said, therefore, to depend both on divine agency and its created cause (1988:92).
<2A> The activity of the creature cannot be talked about as composed of a divine and a created operation; the created effect of God and a created cause should not be spoken of as a composition of distinct created and divine effects (1988:94).
<2B> God's agency is not to be talked about as partial, or as composed or mixed with created causality. None of that is proper since God is said to be at work as a transcendent agent founding created causality as a whole (1988:94).
<3> [P]rohibitions extend to talk about the influence of divine agency as any sort of working on created operations already in act. . . God brings forth the operations of created causes by working interiorly, in their depths. . . . God operates from within created causes, in the very place from which their operations arise (1988:95).
<4A> [R]ules restrict talk about created causes influencing God or God's agency. . . . any ordering among things arising from created causes is itself included under the immediate creative agency of God (1988:96).
<4B> [C]reated causes for created effects cannot be said to condition God's creative will for those effects. . . . The created cause exists only because God wills into existence a created causal order that includes it (1988:97).
<5A> If no a priori relations of identity hold between the characterizations of God and created beings, talk of God's power and efficacy does not require their conferral upon creatures (1988:98).
<5B> [O]ne is permitted to talk of God's bringing to be created effects without sufficient created causes for them (1988:99). [This rule opens the door to speak of miracle.]
<6A> [P]redicates that diversify divine agency should be able to be ascribed to only the effects of divine agency (1988:102).
Rule 6A means the following:
Saying that divine agency is indirect, e.g., means that God establishes created causal media for created effects; saying that divine agency continues in preserving creatures means that God founds created reality in its duration; saying that God moves the creature means that God establishes created being in motion; saying that God modifies created being means that God founds created being in differences of quality across time. In the same way, saying that God's agency supplements or replaces secondary causality is simply to say that divine agency founds created effects without sufficient created causes (1988:102).
<6B> <[T]alk in which the character of divine agency varies with its effects [should] be able to be reduced without remainder to talk about the self-same divine will having different created effects (1988:103).
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