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Gregory of Nyssa: A Response

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Gregory of Nyssa: A Response

Benj Petroelje

Alex Abecina makes me nervous. No need to worry – I’ve already told him this. It all started on a slow Friday morning when Alex and I were labeling children’s books in the Regent Bookstore. I was engrossed in the Lord’s Prayer Children’s Edition, getting in touch with my inner child, when Alex inexplicably turned the conversation to Gregory of Nyssa and science. After droning on and on (and on…) about incomprehensibility, I finally looked up to share with him these enlightened words, “You’re dead wrong bro.” And with that fiery rhetoric, an Et Cetera conversation was birthed.

Last week, in an extremely thoughtful article, Alex advanced his argument that because God is essentially incomprehensible, theology has little (read: nothing) to offer science. This frees science to do what science loves to do, namely study the world as the world divorced from the confining bounds of religion. Interestingly, Alex proposed that this divorce of theology and science is a good thing, rooted as it is in the incomprehensibility of the subject matter of each: God and Creation. I respectfully and lovingly disagree with Alex on three counts, and buttress my disagreements with a unique trinitarian defense: Karl Rahner, Paul Teel and Paul Williams.

First, preliminary to my primary disagreements is my hesitancy with Alex’s insistence upon the incomprehensibility of God. For all the philosophical speculation regarding God’s essence, it is striking to me that the Bible speaks of God’s incomprehensibility almost strictly in terms of his ways, or his actions. This is certainly the lesson Job learns when Yahweh finally arrives on the scene to question him (38-42:6) and what Paul “doxologizes” about in reflection upon God’s covenant faithfulness, “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom 11:33)! Might God’s essence be beyond comprehension? Sure. But to construct a theology of science on that foundation is to build on biblical sand.

Even here I tread carefully so as not to “rend asunder” what must not be separated – God’s act and being. As Karl Rahner put it, “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity” (The Trinity). If this is true, trying to divorce God’s action from his being is a fruitless endeavor. Is balance between the two needed? Of course. But if I’m going to err, I’ll err on the side of comprehensibility, for it seems to me that the entire story of the Bible is an “error” in this direction.

Second, I’m not convinced of Alex’s history. Explicit in his argument is the notion that the doctrine of incomprehensibility was the ground from which the scientific enterprise was launched. However, Paul Teel argues almost the exact opposite in his CTC I Lecture when, using Michael Foster’s thesis, he argues that it is the Christian affirmation of creation which paves the way for the emergence of modern science. When Christian theology is inserted into an otherwise Greek philosophy of nature and science, Foster argues that Christianity “seeps” out, fundamentally altering those disciplines as it does. True knowledge, no longer found by deductively reasoning away from matter, is found by getting one’s hands dirty and playing in the mud. Matter matters. This is the gift of theology. Far from allowing science to “get on with it” outside of the realm of theology, this view sees science as virtually impossible outside of theology. But here I impinge on my third and final critique.

At the end of his article, Alex argues that the divorce of theology from science resulting from the doctrine of incomprehensibility is the best possible context in which science can work. In this way, science can “attend to the world as the world.” While I have argued above that the emergence of modern science was not even possible outside of a theological framework, I here take that argument a step further. If the progression of science in the modern era has shown us anything, it has been to remind us that theology remains its proper home. A science untethered from theology has, as Paul Williams argued in a recent CTC II lecture, provided us a “prodigal” science – granting us such gifts as the threat of nuclear war and the minefield that is emerging medical ethics. What is the cure for such a wayward science? Should we, like theological cheerleaders, stand on the sidelines and encourage scientists to just keep “attending?” Far from a further separation, Paul called for nothing short of a prodigal return – in short, a reintegration of these disciplines in order to breathe fresh wind into our theology and needed restraint to our science.

Needless to say, this exhortation sounds a very different note than the separatist tendencies of Alex’s article. So which foundation provides a better starting place for a theology of science? Is it the incomprehensibility of God? The Christian affirmation of creation? Somewhere between? This article certainly hasn’t answered all the questions. After all, some things are just better left for dialogue. If you want to join us, you can find us in the Bookstore. We’ll be in the Children’s aisle.

Benj Petroelje

Alex Abecina makes me nervous. No need to worry – I’ve already told him this. It all started on a slow Friday morning when Alex and I were labeling children’s books in the Regent Bookstore. I was engrossed in the Lord’s Prayer Children’s Edition, getting in touch with my inner child, when Alex inexplicably turned the conversation to Gregory of Nyssa and science. After droning on and on (and on…) about incomprehensibility, I finally looked up to share with him these enlightened words, “You’re dead wrong bro.” And with that fiery rhetoric, an Et Cetera conversation was birthed.

Last week, in an extremely thoughtful article, Alex advanced his argument that because God is essentially incomprehensible, theology has little (read: nothing) to offer science. This frees science to do what science loves to do, namely study the world as the world divorced from the confining bounds of religion. Interestingly, Alex proposed that this divorce of theology and science is a good thing, rooted as it is in the incomprehensibility of the subject matter of each: God and Creation. I respectfully and lovingly disagree with Alex on three counts, and buttress my disagreements with a unique trinitarian defense: Karl Rahner, Paul Teel and Paul Williams.

First, preliminary to my primary disagreements is my hesitancy with Alex’s insistence upon the incomprehensibility of God. For all the philosophical speculation regarding God’s essence, it is striking to me that the Bible speaks of God’s incomprehensibility almost strictly in terms of his ways, or his actions. This is certainly the lesson Job learns when Yahweh finally arrives on the scene to question him (38-42:6) and what Paul “doxologizes” about in reflection upon God’s covenant faithfulness, “Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom 11:33)! Might God’s essence be beyond comprehension? Sure. But to construct a theology of science on that foundation is to build on biblical sand.

Even here I tread carefully so as not to “rend asunder” what must not be separated – God’s act and being. As Karl Rahner put it, “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity” (The Trinity). If this is true, trying to divorce God’s action from his being is a fruitless endeavor. Is balance between the two needed? Of course. But if I’m going to err, I’ll err on the side of comprehensibility, for it seems to me that the entire story of the Bible is an “error” in this direction.

Second, I’m not convinced of Alex’s history. Explicit in his argument is the notion that the doctrine of incomprehensibility was the ground from which the scientific enterprise was launched. However, Paul Teel argues almost the exact opposite in his CTC I Lecture when, using Michael Foster’s thesis, he argues that it is the Christian affirmation of creation which paves the way for the emergence of modern science. When Christian theology is inserted into an otherwise Greek philosophy of nature and science, Foster argues that Christianity “seeps” out, fundamentally altering those disciplines as it does. True knowledge, no longer found by deductively reasoning away from matter, is found by getting one’s hands dirty and playing in the mud. Matter matters. This is the gift of theology. Far from allowing science to “get on with it” outside of the realm of theology, this view sees science as virtually impossible outside of theology. But here I impinge on my third and final critique.

At the end of his article, Alex argues that the divorce of theology from science resulting from the doctrine of incomprehensibility is the best possible context in which science can work. In this way, science can “attend to the world as the world.” While I have argued above that the emergence of modern science was not even possible outside of a theological framework, I here take that argument a step further. If the progression of science in the modern era has shown us anything, it has been to remind us that theology remains its proper home. A science untethered from theology has, as Paul Williams argued in a recent CTC II lecture, provided us a “prodigal” science – granting us such gifts as the threat of nuclear war and the minefield that is emerging medical ethics. What is the cure for such a wayward science? Should we, like theological cheerleaders, stand on the sidelines and encourage scientists to just keep “attending?” Far from a further separation, Paul called for nothing short of a prodigal return – in short, a reintegration of these disciplines in order to breathe fresh wind into our theology and needed restraint to our science.

Needless to say, this exhortation sounds a very different note than the separatist tendencies of Alex’s article. So which foundation provides a better starting place for a theology of science? Is it the incomprehensibility of God? The Christian affirmation of creation? Somewhere between? This article certainly hasn’t answered all the questions. After all, some things are just better left for dialogue. If you want to join us, you can find us in the Bookstore. We’ll be in the Children’s aisle.