Saturday, 29 October 2011

A theological structure for discourse on nature and society

The foundations of western society are widely accepted to have been influenced by reformed notions of the individual, and at the very least the possibility of a personal knowledge of God. The discussion of revelation and reason that has been conducted so far rests upon some of these assumptions. The theologian Karl Barth often spoke of the freedom of God's being, and this freedom from any human construct is again assumed in Trinitarian ontology, and even in theology more generally. This does raise some important questions regarding what theology has to say to society more precisely. Important as God's freedom maybe the inevitable question of how he speaks, lives and engages with society must be faced. Far from detracting from previous material covered this concern does in fact enhance the meaning of it by bringing it's relevance to bear more accurately and widely. To carry meaning God's transcendence will have to be seen in his economy. Perhaps an overemphasis on God's freedom have more to do with the accumulated cobwebs of Protestant liberalism than the clear and incisive voice of Scripture.

This problem of the social mediation of theological knowledge has been thoroughly addressed by the eminent evangelical theologian Professor Alister McGrath. Exactly how this is carried out is of vital importance since it lays the groundwork for the very foundations of education. McGrath's 'scientific theology' trilogy is a detailed and complex theological engagement with the modern epistemology of the natural sciences. Of primary importance to McGrath, given his thesis, is the term nature itself. Indeed he devotes an entire volume to this introducing it with the following words,

'This opening volume clarifies the general position to be adopted, before moving on to a detailed engagement with the concept of 'nature', which is of such decisive importance in any discussion of the relation of the natural sciences and theology…'

He later goes on to conclude:

'This process of mediation (of social concepts) means that our perception of what 'nature' means – or what it means to be 'natural' is covertly shaped by a series of influences, which deny us direct access to an allegedly neutral or self-sufficient notion of 'nature' itself….Nature itself offers no ontology as a means of categorical justification. It is an interpreted and socially mediated category. For the theologian this raises the critical question: given that 'nature' is an interpreted and mediated notion, what interpretation is to be preferred'.

The argument proceeds to advocate on the basis of this reasoning that the concept of nature needs to be reclaimed by a doctrine of creation. Yet there is an uneasy sense at this point that this is not a secure foundation to proceed from. And indeed McGrath notes shortly after that 'nature' offers 'little promise as a basis – or even a dialogue partner – for a scientific theology'. Is there therefore no objective notion of nature to be found? Nature here is contrasted with creation in an unusual manner. The idea that nature has no objective basis not only undermines classical philosophical foundations, more vitally it is without Scriptural precedent. Essentially this means a rejection of socially agreed ideas of nature, since they are assumed to have a fundamentally subjective quality - they are a matter of interpretation. Proceeding from the more secure basis of revelation we may note this to be a view that does not have adequate foundation. The plain meaning of Scripture debunks this at several points.

The prophetic literature describes God's use of the natural constructs of other nations to discipline Israel in her disobedience and wanderings from the secure words of her Lord. This is indeed socially mediated to Israel but it has an objective character because of the Lord's use of it in comparison to the unnatural ways of Israel.  An illustration of this principle is provided by the prophet Ezekiel who speaks to Israel in chapter 5 v.5 of the book that bears his name,

'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the centre of nations, with countries all around her. Yet in her wickedness she has rebelled against my laws and decrees more than the countries and nations around her. She has rejected my laws and has not followed my decrees'.

Whether or not nature is a meaningful notion does of course depend upon the ultimate mediator of the notion. Without a prophetic standard there is no secure way of knowing whether one notion of nature contains a substantial body of truth that another does not. As can be seen from the above this involves more than simply being in possession of Scripture, but the insight of Israel's prophets on the relative value of the ways of life of nations and communities. Nothing could be more important and relevant than this in the current 2011 European debt crisis. This serves to highlight how vital the concept of socially mediated notions of nature are. As McGrath notes the Christian notion of nature is essentially undergirded by a doctrine of creation (see earlier treatment in this work), and therefore carries a distinct identity, but this needs to be rightly set against the socially mediated notion of nature that is carried by the various national institutions of a country. The ideas of nature carried by institutions are not socially mediated alone. According to the prophets they are in fact a kind of social scientific yardstick in the hands of the Lord. There are indeed question marks as to whether the natural sciences as a 'pure' focus can act as a sufficient measure to mediate the theological knowledge brought to us by the prophets, and by the Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit's power. Could it be that the enlightenment focus on the sciences has caused us to miss some of the larger targets that the social sciences set their sights upon?

In all the interesting discussion on nature we should one important fact: that we are in fact often inclined to worship nature and so the gathering of the knowledge about it. It is all too easy to construct an idol out of particular types of knowledge. Even the concept of nature itself is thrown into relief by the revelation of the Lord. The prophet Isaiah notes in chapter 40 of the book that bears his name.

'Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as they were fine dust. Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings. Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing'.

This is not cause to abandon the concept of nature in theology. But it is clear some strong re-evaluation is necessary! The focus in this verse is on the theological deconstruction of nature, to which McGrath may be referring. But if God is understood to be the prime force of good in the world we must find some way of understanding how it is that he is at work in nature and society. And there is plenty of evidence in Scripture to support the idea that God uses the pagan concept of nature to make statements in the world concerning himself, although for the Christian this notion can only remain distinguished when it is recognized that God sees nature with personal objectivity as the Creator and sustainer thereof.

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