spiritual but not jewish

I’ve been trying to ration how often I link to Chris Locke’s site, but I can’t resist a link to this.

I think one of the reasons why I like the site so much is that I still have a fair amount of residual New Ageyness in my own thinking, and it is bracing when such elements are brought up into the light, there to vanish. Of course, what is happening with me is a slow transformation of New Age ‘not religious but spiritual’ flabbiness into a more tautly muscled (!) orthodoxy; not sure that’s what Chris has in mind :o)

Da Vinci Code: the real challenge to the church

Final Learning Church session of the ‘academic year’ last Saturday, and it was on ‘Debunking the Da Vinci Code’. Not that difficult… Then on Sunday beloved and I went off to watch the film, which was fine – less anti-Christian than the book, if anything; competently directed and acted. I suspect most of the criticism of it (as a film) is driven by the media’s desire to have something different to say about the phenomenon, not from any unprejudiced assessments of the film’s merits themselves.

Anyhow, what I wanted to say was something which I emphasised in my LC talk, which is that the Da Vinci Code phenomenon is holding up a mirror to the church, and I believe we should pray and ponder seriously how we should respond. In particular, I think that the implications are much more radical than what the church, in its various parts, has undertaken so far.

My point is this: all of the dramatic charge in the Da Vinci Code comes from echoing the Reformation-era controversies against the Roman Catholic church; in particular, however, it is seen as radical and controversial to argue that Jesus was human. (Same thing that drove the reaction to The Last Temptation of Christ).

Why is this at all interesting? The orthodox teaching is that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine – therefore, anything which is simply spelling out an implication of his humanity, ie that he could have been married to Mary Magdalene, is perfectly in tune with Christian doctrine. There is nothing shocking about it.

So why do people believe that there is?

The implication is that church teaching is functionally docetic. Whatever we might officially say, the wider world hears the church presenting Jesus as someone who was wholly divine, and who only seemed to be (Greek: dokei) human.

In other words, the world hears the church teaching that Jesus was a Superman figure. Jesus put on his humanity in the way that Kal-El puts on a pair of glasses, in order to pass amongst us. Yet his true and authentic nature is other than human.

It is a catastrophe that the church has allowed this to happen. It is a rebuke to the church: it is a prominent signal of the church’s failure to communicate the truth of the gospel and to allow itself to be caught up in ephemera and adiaphora – all the things which are ultimately of no importance, which have obscured that which is of paramount and eternal importance.

Underlying this is an understanding of God which sees the Greek philosophical attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence etc) as determinative, and as standing over against the human, where the human lacks all these attributes. Christianity is about the overthrow of that conception of both the divine and the human – that is precisely what the Incarnation is about – demonstrated symbolically by the tearing of the curtain in the temple. In other words, being a Christian is about allowing Jesus to teach us what divinity and humanity are – it is not about importing our understandings of divinity and humanity, and trying to use them to understand Jesus.

Given that the world hears the church teaching a heresy, and yet – as the response to DVC demonstrates – there is a tremendous search for the truth about Jesus, and a fascination with Him – what is the church to do?

It must stop using language that is interpreted docetically. When we claim that Jesus is the Son of God, however orthodox we may understand that language to be (and it is!) we must never forget that it is heard docetically. I suggest that in all of our conversations with non-Christians we should abandon that language. Completely. All that it does is reinforce error. Our language instead should emphasise that Jesus is truly one of us, that we should begin to approach Him on that basis, and that we should then allow Him to teach us about our humanity, and about our own divinity – our inheritance as children of God, fellow-heirs with Christ.

We must begin from the wholly orthodox truth that Jesus was fully human, and build from there, allowing his humanity, as we enter more deeply into it, to teach us about his divinity, and therefore what divinity truly is.

We do not need to abandon orthodoxy – that is the liberal error – but nor is the aggressive reassertion of orthodoxy sufficient, for the consequence of that is simply to apply fertiliser to the weeds of DVC and its ilk.

We must allow our language to be broken up and recreated. It is not our words which will lead us to God. It is the Word. To be true to him requires a letting go of words, however wonderful and meaningful, and an embrace of the Word. He will lead us into the truth, if we let Him.

The apathistic stance, and asophism

I’m prompted to put this on my blog by reading this post. The link between science and faith has always been something of a driver for me, but I am often tempted to think that a plague should descend upon all theologians who seek to write a ‘scientific’ theology. It seems to me that there is something inherently idolatrous in the scientific method, taken as a final step in the discernment of truth; at the same time there is something profoundly holy in the scientific method, when it is taken as a penultimate step in the discernment of truth. To call a theology ‘scientific’ is, to my mind, to implicitly favour the former option. Theology may well be the Queen of the Sciences (I think it is, for reasons that will become clear) but to call – in today’s society – a theology ‘scientific’ is, I feel, trading upon the idolatrous elevation of scientific enquiry above theology – and that I believe to be wrong.

Science has customarily been described as an ‘objective’ discipline. My argument is that the scientific method is better characterised as an emotional disengagement from the material being studied. This emotional distancing is at heart a spiritual discipline, one with roots in Christian and Stoic thinking about controlling the emotions: apatheia (apathism – the structured denial of emotion, apathist, apathistic). I therefore think that the most precise description of scientific investigation comes from talking about the apathistic stance underlying all such enquiry.

However, when this is seen as the concluding means for obtaining truth, all the most important elements of human existence are excluded. Drawing on some recent research and thinking in the philosophy of mind and related fields (principally Antonio Damasio and Martha Nussbaum) I argue that to put science to good use we require wisdom and judgement – emotional intelligence– which necessitates an emotional engagement, and which is necessarily non-scientific. This has historically been supplied by religious traditions such as Christianity, and a central part of such ‘wisdom traditions’ is precisely their ability to inculcate and develop emotional intelligence.

However, as a result of particular historical circumstances, our culture has hugely developed the capacity for apatheia but lost the capacity to integrate the insights generated into a larger spiritual discipline. Put simply, apatheia – science – is unable to supply any answers to questions of meaning, to guide us as to what is considered important – it is blind to ‘the seriousness of life’. This I summarise in a neologism – asophic, adj. meaning not connected with wisdom. I believe that contemporary Western society is built upon asophic foundations, and the effects are well known.

It seems to me that the spiritual roots of scientific endeavour need to be acknowledged and affirmed; in so doing the re-integration of science within the broader framework of Christian understandings can proceed, with profound benefits to both forms of enquiry. This is what my book is about (first two chapters found here). I haven’t done much work on the book for a number of years, but I get the sense that something might happen this summer…