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Reading John Haldane on Theology

December 31, 2010

John Haldane and Friend

The last two posts have tracked the paradox of God’s existence from the pre-Socratics through the Modern. The pre-Socratics come from a collection of “broken texts and quoted passages “ by Hermann Diels who under the title Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker gathered together a large number of pieces attributed to thinkers prior to the period of Socrates, mostly from the sixth century BC.

John Haldane has written of them: “Looking at these passages it is clear that the authors were investigating fundamental questions about the nature of reality, and seeking for ultimate principles that would explain its existence and nature. So, for example, Thales of Miletus is reputed to have said that “it is necessary that there should be some nature, either one or more than one, out of which arise the features of things”; and several of the Pre-Socratics speak of principles that explain the order and patterns of movement in the universe.”

Oddly enough the Pre-Socratics achieved something that we moderns have long since trashed: they were the first philosophers who combined to act as the first scientists. They called themselves ‘physiologoi’ which can be translated as ‘natural scientists.’ As Haldane comments: “They were interested in the ultimate constituents of things and in the manner of their combination.”

He continues: “What is less often observed, however, is that these thinkers can equally well be represented as natural theologians. For while they were interested in nature they thought of it in the broadest possible terms, as encompassing all that there might be, invisible and invisible; and they wanted to know what sustained it and moved it towards certain intelligible ends. In speaking of the ultimate explanation they began to talk of ‘Logos’, an account or explanation.

Although Logos can be translated as ‘theory’ that is anachronistic if by theory we mean a set of ideas in the mind of enquirers, or a set of statements written down. The Logos for which they sought was something that explained the cosmos both in the way that an account might, but also in the way that a cause would do. Indeed, for these thinkers the Logos was something real, perhaps transcendent of the cosmos, but if so then also immanent within it, making it to be what it is and drawing reality to itself as an end or Telos.”

So there you have it: philosophers, scientists and theologians all under one roof. I live with two Siamese and have never even considered living with three – the pre-Socratics appear to be the realization of that possibility. For us moderns, metaphysics, science and theology seem to have long since drifted apart. I had never thought of them to function as any kind of unit until Haldane’s discussion of the three in a recent article, The Disuniting and Reuniting of Ultimate Questions, came as a somewhat of a revelation to me.

Haldane defines the three here: “The first, can appear the model of pure a priori thought, disengaged from the world of experience; the second, a massive collection of detailed descriptions and theories about the enormous variety of material phenomena, but with no intelligible unity; and the third an obscure and generally unrigorous rhapsody of affirmations and aspirations, at one end couched in the languages of politics and sentimentality, and at the other in the terms of a cosmic poetry unregulated by science or philosophy.”

The best theology appears to us as a kind of poetry, something that moves us deeply. Who can forget that marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

And there you see it, really. John’s prologue provides us a most transcendent answer which also serves as a statement of purpose. The ultimate Logos that John spoke to the natural scientists and metaphysicians of the ancient world and of which his prologue continues to speak to us as sort of an echo today —  the Word of God — is that by which all things were made and in whom was life, the light of men. Yet where do we Moderns consider the word of God in our lives now?

John’s  author, Haldane tells us, “was intending to address Greek-speaking Jews and educated Gentiles who would recognize the term ‘Logos’ as belonging to metaphysics-cum-science-cum-natural theology. Instead of identifying the account either with a theory or even with a metaphysical or cosmological principle, however, he identified it with a deity, and not just a ‘god’ but with God, an ultimate, intrinsically personal creator, sustainer and provider of the universe.”

And where are those people today? Haldane’s definition of the three above displays a profound disassociation where  theology seems particularly exposed; for while the metaphysician may be criticized for paying insufficient attention to empirical enquiry, and the natural scientist too little to abstract argument about ultimate principles, at least both appear to be directed towards describing the structure of things: metaphysical and natural, respectively. This seems to exhaust the possible totality of reality, and so if there is anything for theology to do, it can only be to provide a poetic accompaniment comprised of pleasing imagery but not revealing any objective truth.

This is a now a fairly common view but it rests on a deep misunderstanding about the nature of enquiry and explanation. A clearer and better view shows the necessity but also the limits of each discipline, and an order of priority among them that elevates theology.

In the article, Haldane asserts a new (or perhaps older) definition that begins with three different answers to the question “Why?” He writes:

  1. First, ‘why?’ may be addressed to the occurrence of an event where the appropriate answer takes the form of an explanation citing observed or presumed prior events and patterns of occurrence. Pressed repeatedly this brings us to a description of the fundamental elements of the material universe and the laws governing their interactions.
  2. Second, ‘why?’ may be addressed to the ultimates of any theory and answered by showing that in some sense these things are necessary. For example, while it may not be necessary that objects have the character they do in this universe, it may be argued that it is necessary that in any universe that could exist there would have to be objects and events of some sort or another. This is a metaphysical explanation.
  3. Third, however, ‘why?’ may be addressed to whatever might occur or be the case and then be answered not in terms of events, or elements, or laws, or necessities, but in terms of ends or purposes. This is a personal explanation. This is precisely what Theology has abandoned the field to  a mishmash of evolutionary biologists and others to answer.

It is in the “ends or purposes” that theology begins to distinguish itself from its brothers in metaphysics and science. Rethinking the  reintegration of science, metaphysics and theology, as Haldane envisions, “lies in the direction of showing that observation gives rise to questions that science answers, but that these themselves raise questions that call for metaphysical responses, and that these in turn point to a different kind of explanation which, though ultimate, is also personal.” 

Haldane comes straight to the point: “Theology does not do the work of metaphysics let alone that of science, but it does provide the most transcendent answer which is also a statement of purpose. The ultimate Logos is that of which John spoke to the natural scientists and metaphysicians of the ancient world and of which his prologue continues to speak to us today: the Word of God by which all things were made and in whom was life, which was the light of men. “

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