Friday, May 18, 2012

Heresy as the foil for faith.

To the Physicist

In true encounter with heresy faith is plunged into conflict with itself, because, so long and so far as it is not free of heresy, so long and so far as heresy affects it, so long and so far as it must accept responsibility in relation to it, it cannot allow even the voice of unbelief which it thinks it hears in heresy to cause it to treat it as not at least also faith but simply as unbelief.  It must understand it as a possibility of faith.  p.33 CD 1.1.2

The word heresy appears almost complete lost in the lingua franca of the 21st century church.  Labels such as Pelgianism or Arianism or Modalism are spoken of mostly in the past tense. 

The Post Modern preference that everyone should be free to believe as they wish has lead to the situation in which whilst we may describe different theological positions by particular labels e.g. ‘evangelical’ ‘liberal’ ‘progressive’ but rarely, if ever is the word heresy used by one group about another.  Although. Often it is still inferred that one set of truths or one particular church has it right in contrast to other churches.

Barth’s conversation around the issue of heresy enters the quagmire and difficult of the topic and pushes us to the edges on the paradox of the true articulation of the Christian faith by the Church.  It appears almost as if in the search to articulate and preserve the truth of Jesus Christ dogmatics needs heresy as a foil.  In the cut and thrust of the argument we discover right belief.  I was struck by Barth’s comment that in the encounter with heresy and unbelief “It must understand it as the possibility of faith.”  Do I hear in this a humble admission such as Paul’s we only see through a dark glass?  A humility that despite grasping hold of faith so doggedly even Barth had room for the possibility that there may be in error in his thinking? 

Having said this Barth appears very much a proponent of true knowing coming only through revelation.  Is revelation for Barth simply the event of Jesus Christ in history?  Or is it, which I suspect it is, the ongoing revelation of the risen Christ throughout history? 

Maybe the problem of heresy is not heresy itself but rather how to articulate intelligibly and faithfully Jesus Christ.

The Theologian.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Physics or Philatelics?

To The Theologian,

"All science is either physics or stamp collecting. "
   - attributed to Sir Ernest Rutherford

Physicists have not always been very generous about the other sciences.  Even those who admit that physics is not the only objective scientific enterprise see in physics, with its intellectual coherence and spectacular success in explaining and predicting the physical aspects of the universe, a paragon of science to which other endeavours may aspire.

"To set itself in systematic relationship to other sciences, theology would have to regard its own separate existence as necessary in principle.  But this is the very thing which it cannot do.  It cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos"

"The only way which theology has of proving its scientific character is to devote itself to the task of knowledge as determined by its actual theme and thus to show what it means by true science"

So how does a physicist respond to Barth's claim that dogmatics is a scientific discipline?  Firstly, perhaps, a relief that Barth is not trying to build a grand metaphysical edifice that attempts to unify everything under the sun into a universal (and hence artificial) synthesis.  And secondly, hopefully, a healthy respect that in using the the adjective "scientific", Barth is emphatically not seeking to justify or apologise for the existence of theology as independent discipline.  Indeed he is quite clear that rather than seek to conform to to external notion of  what a science should be, it must above all seek to be true to its own object of knowledge.  Somewhat ironically, this freedom to pursue its own definite path of knowledge  (which means it does not have to be a science) is what gives dogmatics a 'solidarity' with other such human concerns for truth (and hence a scientific character).

"As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God."

The successful scientific disciplines are (IMHO) those that are deliberately limited (one could say 'focussed') in their scope and empirical in their methodology (i.e. continually  and rigorously testing their findings against an objective reality). In the case of physics, this means first always seeking to discern the essential physics in a situation - while this means ignoring many complexities in a situation as mere superficial details (all cows are spherical, for example, with legs and other appendages as incidental perturbations), it does lead to penetrating insight and allows for the powerful application of general physics principles).  Second, it means that physics must constrain itself to statements that can be quantitatively tested in the laboratory or by observation.

Hence it resonated with me that in this section Barth highlights both the limited scope of theology and its empirical nature.  It is limited in that is focussed on the examination of the church's proclamation, i.e. the collective christian talk about God, and it is empirical in that is seeks to continually test the coherence of this proclamation against the "being of the church", i.e. it continually asks whether the talk of the church is true to its origins.  

Barth's theological undertaking is undeniably vast and perhaps not a little bit intimidating.  But it is perhaps these simple constraints that give it such insight and utility.

The Physicist.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Science of Theology

To the Physicist,

Barth's opening gambit as the discipline of theology as a science came as a little bit of a surprise for me.  Not because he was saying anything new, I had already come across the idea that theology is a science in one of his students T.F. Torrance

Rather because having already dipped into the Dogmatics for different projects I expected the first words to be something about the revelation of God in Jesus.

But as I got into the chapter "The Church, Theology and Science" the sense of what Barth did became clear.  I believe Barth was making an assumption that readers of the Dogmatics would already be Christians given that theology is an act of "scientific" self examination by the church.

I wonder how a scientist might view this claim of theology as a scientific endeavour? Is science more about process or the content?  Peter Harrison's book "The Bible, Protestantism and the rise of natural science" (which I have only skimmed) certainly points at the methodological development of modern scientific thinking from theology.

The centre of the circle of this self-examination in Barth's words, "The question of truth, with which theology is concerned, is the question as to the agreement of the Church's distinctive talk about God with the being of the Church".  In the sense theology appears a rational, scientific, analysis of the history of revelation and its current experience and articulation of that revelation.  It is an analysis that is focused inwardly. 

I wonder if this is a concern? But maybe the inward focus is not in the sense of self-justification, theology for the sake of justifying theology, but in order to ensure that there is a coherence between what the church says about God and how it exists as the church.  This reminded me somewhat of John Calvin's purpose in writing the Institutes to expound how the Scriptures should be read and interpreted.  I am sure that i will come across such links again given Barth's high regard for Calvin.

I also like the idea of dogmatics being an act of penitence and obedience p.22 - does this mean that dogmatics becomes like one long prayer, confession?  Yet as a scientific methodology I wonder how this relates? Is the continued testing of hypotheses like a confession and repentance, admitting to where the error is and starting again?


The Theologian