I should state at the outset that I am not anti-Spong in general in fact I have been helped by some of his writing over the years (particularly Living in Sin and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism although I can mark a divergence in our views from the publication of Why Christianity Must Change or Die).
I should also add that I have not had the opportunity to read The Grand Design so the quotes I use are extracted from a review of the book you can find here. What I offer below is a response to the article my dad sent me. It is an edited and clarified version of an email exchange between me and my dad. I offer it as a critique of JSS’s paper rather than a critique of JSS in general. You can read JSS’ paper here.
I do not find this piece from JSS helpful in the slightest. Not only do I believe he is overstating what Hawking and Mlodinow are saying, he is furthermore using his erroneous reading of their book to add credence to his previously stated beliefs. This is not good journalism or good theology.
I have drawn out a few quotes of particular concern.
“Theistic theology is not unlike the daily report of the weatherman, who informs us that the sun will rise and set at a particular moment each day, though we have known since the time of Copernicus in the 16th century that it is the earth's rotation on its axis as it journeys around the sun each year that creates the illusion of the sun itself rising and setting.”
JSS reveals the weakness of some of his position by way of this analogy. No one I know (and I would argue even the vast majority of “conservative” Christians) would suggest for a moment that our continued use of the nomenclature, ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ denotes the Sun’s continual rotation around the Earth. However, these terms are still used and are still useful because they correctly describe our experience of the Sun even though we all know that it is in fact the Earth’s rotation that has caused the phenomenon.
By extension, much of our theological speak is the same. Granted there are large numbers of Christians who take the theological language of our tradition, the analogies, as literal or plain. But from my experience, most, when pushed, concede they are not sure of the ‘reality’, but the language helps us get closer to the truth. While I agree that the perpetuation of some analogies is a hindrance to truth and a stumbling-stone to non-believers, JSS is imprecise in his dismissal and as such, lays waste to all theistic analogies not just some. I would need to be convinced that every analogy is unhelpful, especially given that Jesus refers to God as Papa, one of the most profound and intimate names for God ever conjured. Where it is the case that ‘analogy’ has become ‘deity’, it is the failure of the church to educate its people rather than the failure of the analogy itself.
“What Stephen Hawking is saying is that no matter how sophisticated our theological understanding is, the idea of God as a supernatural being who started the universe, and who from time to time has intervened in miraculous ways in the affairs of the universe in general or of this world in particular, is no longer viable.”
This is JSS’ extension of what Hawking is saying. He has fallen into the same trap as the New Atheists who are championing Hawking and Mlodinow as the coffin bearers of belief in God. JSS has seized the opportunity to use the The Grand Design to give credence to his agenda. As I said, this is bad theology. It's what can be called 'correlationism' in that it begins with a popularly accepted truth and then works backward (correlates it) to validate a preconceived theological perspective. I'm all for the church being clear about the God we worship and the theology that inspires us, but I do not think using erroneous overstatements of 'the facts' (as the New Atheists are wont to do) is the way to do it. Our greatest witness has always and will always be love. Not because love is considered to be of value in our cultures and societies but because we believe in the God that is love. We can use all kinds of sympathetic 'earthly' analogies but we must always confess that we do not love because of these things, but because God is.
What Hawking and Mlodinow do say is "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist…It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." They can make this claim because of M-Theory. M-Theory has been around for about fifteen years and is an attempt to synthesise/harmonise the five separate String Theories. Behind the claims of M-Theory is an assertion that our experienced universe is merely one of an infinite number of universes. There is matter and life and intelligence in ours by simple fact of the law of averages. M-Theory allows for the universe to spontaneously ‘bang’ – there is no need for a first cause.
M-Theory is pure mathematics at this stage, which is to say that it is unobservable (read, not yet proven). Hawking and Mlodinow concede themselves that if M-Theory can be confirmed by observation, "We will have found the grand design" (emphasis added). ‘The Grand Design’ by all reports is an attempt to elucidate M-Theory in a way that is comprehensible for lay people. M-Theory has been around since the 1990’s and String Theory began its development in the 1920’s, so all reports are suggesting there is nothing new in this ‘new book’ in terms of the physics they explain. While the book does make a brief reference to God, the claim that he may be driving another “nail into the coffin of theistic thinking” is to buy into the media hype and reactionary understanding of what it is Hawking and Mlodinow are saying.
What they are offering is the same notion of ‘something from nothing’ that scientists have been keen to prove for centuries. I for one am not particularly compelled by this argument as it is predicated on being comfortable with the idea that ‘spontaneous creation’ is a satisfactory explanation for the existence of anything. The presence of an infinite number of universes does nothing to alleviate the persistent ‘need to know’ I feel; or my conviction that in the beginning – God. All Hawking and Mlodinow have done, is to reiterate the complexity of the known universe and our need to take seriously that complexity. If a “six-day-creationist” is unnerved by reading this book that’s all good and well, but I don’t think this rehash of existing scientific theories is going to be a nail in anyone’s coffin.
“We human beings then insist, it seems, on going one dreadful step further, and that comes when we turn our God definition into creeds, doctrines and dogmas and immediately invest these ideas with the claim of infallibility or inerrancy.”
As I have previously mentioned, I am all for a strong critique of impostor gods and idolatrous theologies, however, once again JSS overstates the idea. When in the Apostles and the Nicene creeds (the only creeds accepted across the entire Church) it states that God the Father created heaven and earth, it does not necessarily mean ‘with God’s own two enormous hands’ which seems to be the only way that JSS is able to interpret that phrase. While there is no doubt that some Christians read and confess this literal reading as true, most Christians around the world and across the ages would hold to its truth but not necessarily its literality as JSS would suggest.
Unfortunately, with the advent of the communication revolution, those creeds which would have only been part of the church's internal rites have become ‘definitions’ of faith beyond our control. Couple with that a tendency for people, religious or otherwise, to want to demarcate themselves for protection and power, the picture is not good. There is a need for the leadership of the Church to rethink how it is that we frame Christianity. In this I am in total agreement with JSS, but I believe it will need to be transformation not reformation that does it. Just look at the last five-hundred years of Christian history and tell me if the 'dissemination' of Christianity has lived up to the hope. Every time I think about the ultra-right-wing-conservatives in North America I get a chill down my spine. And yet, we can trace their existence back to Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others. The reformation was both a gift and a curse, the ramifications of which are still to be decided.
“Self-conscious human beings can escape our human limits, but only by analogy and pointers. There is clearly more to the idea of God than the human mind can ever understand, but we should have learned this by now, since this fact has been clear for centuries. Even St. Paul warned us that we now see only through "a glass darkly." The Fourth Gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit "will lead us into all truth," which seems to me to imply that none of us now possesses all truth. Yet in our pathetic human insecurity we still talk about an "inerrant Bible" and an "infallible Pope." If we recognize that ultimate truth is beyond our limits, how can we continue to describe anyone anywhere as either a "heretic" or an "infidel," to say nothing of proclaiming one to be an atheist?”
JSS exposes some of his real prejudices here. While it is most probably theism in general he is attacking, the kind of theism that leads one to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible or the infallibility of the Pope is of greatest concern. I am sympathetic to these concerns however, I would disagree with JSS that the recognition of the unattainable nature of the knowledge of God necessarily leads us to a position of insecurity and therefore protectionism.
What I would say is that, ‘the recognition of the unattainable nature of the knowledge of God’ can in fact lead us to true faithfulness as we are required to ‘know even though we do not understand’. I would also say that for Christians this ‘problem of God’s unknowability’ lies at the very heart of our understanding of the incarnation. Jesus reveals to us what is otherwise purely speculation.
“I saw a universe born in a physical explosion of matter that ultimately produced life, consciousness and self-consciousness; I am now convinced that matter carries within it the seeds of life. I see no dualism any longer between matter and life or between matter and spirit. I have also ceased to think of God theistically, that is, as a being — even a supernatural being. I think of God as the Source of life calling me to live, the Source of love, calling me to love, the ground of being calling me to be all that I can be. I think of God as the universal consciousness of which I am a part. All of these concepts are analogies, descriptions of our experience. They are not descriptions of God! I now see worship as the commitment to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that I can be. I see the mission of my faith not to be winning converts, but to be that of expanding life for all, enhancing love for all, increasing the being of all that renders every human prejudice as a violation of all that God means. I see the divine as the depth dimension of the human and thus as part of the human, not as the invasion of life by a being external to life.”
This is one of the clearest definitions of Christian panentheism (verging on pantheism) I have ever read. I'm not trying to use panentheism here in a pejorative sense (I am after all a little sympathetic to panentheism), but it is merely another way of articulating an experience of the divine. I would however, like JSS to own up to his panentheism. It seems a little disingenuous to be happy to use labels for others while assuming no label to help define his position. JSS rightly says however, it is an analogy. But as such, what JSS is saying is that he prefers his analogy to others. This is perfectly valid. I sense, however, that he is not always open about its analogous status as he cannot seem to abide that, for other people, other analogies work better. Yes, we need to guard against idolatry and impostor gods, but he is essentially saying that unless you work within his analogies (or ones he sanctions) you are not talking about his god.
My problem with panentheism as ‘the only valid analogy for God’ is bound up in the fact that we most profoundly experience God in a relational sense (albeit a strange relationship). Panentheism does not leave much room for relating to God in this way. In effect, it reduces God to the immanent and leaves no room for the transcendent. I experience God in both immanent and transcendent ways, so I am not willing to throw my full weight behind panentheism. Interestingly, JSS also talks about “transcendence”, “otherness” and “heightened consciousness”, although he is very careful to say that these 'experiences' point to, and inform our God language. I would be interested to push him further on the issue.
It sounds like he is saying that we have these experiences but we should not give them too much credence when it comes to then articulating the God behind them. He walks a fine epistemological line here. Either our experiences of God do point to the true nature of God (albeit hidden in a riddle) or quite simply, we have no direct experience of God. This is one of those great postmodern philosophical quandaries. The way out of the impasse for Christian people, has always been the revelation of God in Jesus as I have previously mentioned, and the centrality of community – the fact that we do not relate to God on our own but in community. The Church then, has always been the litmus test of theology, revelational and transcendence. However, the Church is broken, fragile and it would seem is very susceptible to the exploitative elements of human nature. This is a problem that will not go away. The only solution I can see is to enter into continual, honest dialogue with one another about faith and theology.
“The human being lives in the wonder of self-consciousness and perceives thereby the wonder of life itself. God is not external to that. I open my eyes every day to the wonder of life, the power of love, the mystery of being and I call that experience God.”
This does leave me wondering: if this is true, and God is so apparent in the world around us, why are so many people oblivious to God? Why is there so much hatred and destruction in the world? Why is the Good News so counter-cultural and so often, counter-intuitive? Why is there a need for Jesus, or is there in fact, no need? And so on. These are always the problems ‘natural theologies’ must answer. I find I am more compelled by the inherent otherness of God – we can witness God’s presence all around us if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, but those are the eyes and ears of faith. I am faithful to God through Christ Jesus because I have recognised in him the very ‘source of life’, the ‘source of love’, and the ‘ground of being’ itself. Upon recognising God revealed in Jesus, I can now see God all around me. I guess in the end, my confession is that I do not identify as a theist, I am a Christian.
Cf. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow – Hawking and Mlodinow's new theory is about life, the universe and everything – except God. By Robin McKie, The Observer, Sunday 12 September 2010.