18 June 2014

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

A review of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love by Elizabeth A. Johnson (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)

After an introductory chapter setting out her rationale for a dialogue between Darwinian theory and (relatively) orthodox Christian theology, Johnson embarks in the next three chapters on a much more detailed introduction to Darwin’s theory than is usually found in books relating science and theology. Readers who are not familiar with the theory will probably find this material helpful. However, there is perhaps too much emphasis on Darwin’s own account of the theory at the expense of current understandings. This is understandable in view of her interesting attempt to portray Darwin’s method as essentially contemplative, making him a potential model for Christian attention to the natural world, but it detracts from her claim to be establishing a dialogue between evolutionary theory (rather than a very dated expression of it) and theology.

In chapter 4, she does attempt to bring her account of evolution up to date. Unfortunately she allows herself to be sidetracked into an entirely predictable criticism of social Darwinism. She misses the point that the deployment of evolutionary theory beyond the bounds of biology was inevitable: We are metaphor-making animals so powerful explanatory principles in one discipline will inevitably be deployed in other disciplines. She also allows herself to stray way beyond evolutionary theory into brief accounts of cosmology and the anthropic principle.

The next four chapters offer a theological perspective on the natural world. Chapter 5, ‘The Dwelling Place of God’, suggests that a Trinitarian framework is fundamental to a properly Christian perspective on the natural world and our place within it; I agree, but I was disappointed that this did not come across more clearly in the rest of the book. On a more positive note, she does make very good use of biblical creation traditions here and throughout the book. While I take her point about creation as God’s dwelling place, I can’t help feeling that it would be more helpful (and more orthodox) to see God as creation’s dwelling place. Chapter 6, ‘Free, Empowered Creation’, explores law, chance and causality in light of Christian theology, asserting the genuine freedom and integrity of creation. Chapter 7, ‘All Creation Groaning’, puts the suffering of all of creation in the context of the cross of Christ and resurrection. Chapter 8, ‘Bearer of Great Promise’, picks up the evolutionary theme again and relates it to the Christian concept of continuing creation: the emphasis here is very much on the directedness of creation towards a final fulfilment.

The concluding pair of chapters focus more particularly on the place of humankind within the cosmos as envisaged by Johnson. Chapter 9, ‘Enter the Humans’, offers a thumbnail sketch of human evolution from Australopithecus to the present day concentrating particularly on our growing impact on global ecosystems and concluding with a call to ‘a deep spiritual conversion to the Earth’ (p. 258). 10. The final chapter, ‘The Community of Creation’, picks up where Chapter 9 left off: she critiques the ‘Dominion’ paradigm based largely on Genesis 1.28 and suggests instead a ‘Community of Creation’ paradigm, which makes more use of the Old Testament wisdom and prophetic traditions. She ends by calling her readers to a Christian ecological vocation informed by the latter paradigm.

I was surprised by the relative absence of reference to Franciscan tradition in this book. There are ample resources within that tradition, which could have helped enormously in the development of Johnson’s argument. Francis himself is arguably at the very root of the Christian form of the community of creation paradigm with his vision of the fraternity of all creation. Duns Scotus offers us a Trinitarian conception of creation, a view of Christ’s relation to creation that puts matter in a much more positive light than, say, the Augustinian view, and his insistence on the unique ‘this-ness’ of every creature. Even Bonaventure could be helpful except that she is too quick to accept Paul Santmire's criticism of him, which makes him out to be more conservatively Augustinian than is actually the case.

In conclusion, I was disappointed by this book, not because it is a bad book (on the contrary, she writes very clearly and makes a good case for Christians to take the natural environment more seriously) but rather because I had hoped for more.

09 June 2014

No uninterpreted spiritual experience

I have long favoured Karl Popper’s slogan, ‘there is no such thing as an uninterpreted observation’. Science never merely follows the evidence’, nor is scientific knowledge merely deduced from mythical theory-neutral observations. On the contrary, all observations are theory laden; they are shaped by prior theories/guesses about the way the world is, which determine what counts as evidence and what observations are of interest to us.

From time to time, I come across people who make the valid point that spiritual experience is much broader than whatever we might experience within the confines of religious worship. However, there is a danger in this generous view of spiritual experience: it is all too easy to slide towards the view that all experience of the transcendent is somehow spiritual. For examples of the sort of thing I mean, see Peter van Ness’s Spirituality and the Secular Quest: almost anything from art appreciation to scientific enquiry, from surfing to sex can be described as spiritual.

In response to this point, I am inclined adapt Popper’s slogan to spiritual experience: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted spiritual experience. Experiences of transcendence or of ecstasy are relatively commonplace. We feel awe at the majesty of nature; we are moved to tears by a work of art. Sex, drugs, (rock and roll) – all have the power to create ecstasy. And human beings have for millennia found nature, sex and drugs to be potent sources of spiritual experience. But whether/how we see such experiences as spiritual requires something more; it depends on the interpretative framework through which we view them. For example, a convinced secular humanist will see in a drug trip only altered brain chemistry.

What initially made me think this way about spiritual experience was an interview with a Buddhist monk that I heard some years ago. He had been brought up as a Roman Catholic before converting to Buddhism in young adulthood. Imagine his surprise when as a result of intense spiritual exercises he began experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary. His teacher wisely pointed out to him that this was only to be expected because his unconscious was attempting to process the experiences he was having in terms that were already familiar to him.

One of the things that the world’s religions do is to offer competing frameworks to help us make sense of our experiences of ecstasy or transcendence. Of course, this means that one religion’s spiritual experience may be dismissed by another as a simple case of overindulgence or anathematized by a third as a case of demonic possession.

As a Christian, I am primarily interested in whether and how my experiences of transcendence might be interpreted as the activity of the Holy Spirit? How might we determine whether the Holy Spirit is active in a particular situation, experience or relationship? As it happens, the New Testament offers a handy set of guidelines for discerning the activity of the Holy Spirit: the Spirit is present and active wherever there is a growth in ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22f.).