Sermon: October 27th 2013

Science, Christianity, and Idolatry 

(or, A Cognitive Scientist Attempts to do Theology)

(NB: This was a sermon delivered at Somerville College, Oxford)

Scientists are in the business of describing and explaining stuff that goes on in the world. Cognitive scientists are principally in the business of describing and explaining stuff that goes on in our heads. We are, that is to say, interested in the gamut of human experience, from the mundane matters of taste and touch to the sublime sensations associated with romantic and, indeed, religious passion. This makes some people uncomfortable, this apparent encroachment of scientists into the rightful realms of saints. The “scientific study of religion” seems oxymoronic, a contradiction, if not of terms, then at least to our sensibilities. The worry is that a science of religion somehow debunks religion, delegitimizes religious institutions and exposes spirituality as a delusion or an opiate or a crutch or worse. To explain religion, some think, would be to explain God away: if a scientific explanation is available for our religious beliefs, behaviours, and feelings, then they must not be real.

This is an odd line to take. As I have said, cognitive scientists study the human experience of things, not the things in themselves. We want to know why the sky looks blue; whether it is blue, we leave to physicists and metaphysicians. We want to know why sea salt tastes as it does to us; the intrinsic properties of sodium chloride, we leave to other bespectacled folk in lab coats. We are, as it were, interested in the human side of things, regardless of whether there is any other side to things. The question of whether or not something that human beings experience is “real” goes beyond my pay grade. To treat me and my colleagues as theologians is to commit a category error.

If not cognitive scientists, might some other kind of scientist be able to tell us whether God exists? Physicists, perhaps; or maybe biologists. Well, no. And not merely because the scientific method is much less the panacea to ignorance that some contemporary fetishists of scientistic sloganism claim. Many questions are, of course, empirical ones, and as such are best answered scientifically; but not all questions are empirical. There is a good chance that the most interesting ones aren’t. But that is beside the point. Science is ill-equipped to provide answers about God, not because it fails to shed light on all things but because God is not a thing at all.

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Scientists are in the business of describing and explaining stuff that goes on in the world, and God is neither “stuff”, nor is God “in the world”. Tables and chairs, quarks and gluons, you and I are, arguably, things in the world; this is what we mean when we say that they (we) exist. But God is quite unlike tables and chairs, quarks and gluons, you and I; God is not to be counted as one among such things. Indeed, as Meister Eckhart, that 13th century mystic wrote, “In God, there is no counting”. Monotheism—or, at least Christian monotheism—is not the belief in one God as opposed to two or three or many gods. It is the belief in God beyond enumeration. What distinguishes the Christian from the polytheist is not that the former believes in fewer gods, but that she believes that quantity is an irrelevant concept in theology. Whatever it is that distinguishes the atheist from the Christian is not that the Christian has one additional object in their ontology. It is not that the Christian’s world contains tables and chairs, quarks and gluons, you and I…and God. God is not the kind of thing to be put in a list with other things. Indeed, God is not even the kind of thing to be put on a list that contains only God; God is not any kind of thing. In other words, not only is God not in the world; God is not even strictly speaking along-side the world. As Terry Eagleton is fond of saying: God and the Universe do not make two. The atheist who merely denies the existence of God in much the same way that she denies that phlogiston, phantasms, and faeries exist therefore finds herself precisely where Christians begin. Christians too insist that God does not exist in this way. Traditional Christian faith—as expressed by theologians from Augustine to Pseudo-Dionysius to Thomas Aquinas—begins simultaneously at the denial of idolatrous ideas about an invisible bearded superhumanoid and at the conviction that the Universe is a gift, not a self-explanatory, self-sustaining thing whose existence is a brute fact. Christian theology is our attempt to speak in the face of this unspeakable mystery that underlies all things, to whom all things owe their being, because we are, as Nicholas Lash puts it, “the speaking parts of things”. It is a speaking borne out of great silence as Thomas Merton and other contemplatives knew well; as T. S. Eliot knew well, who said that:

Words strain, crack and sometimes break,

Under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

Do not hear me wrongly. I am not just saying that God is beyond human thought, though doubtless that is true. I am not saying that God is hidden somewhere else, perhaps in Heaven; after all, Heaven is not a place apart from Earth: one can travel from Oxford to Cambridge (if one really wished), but not, as it were, from Cambridge to Heaven. This is no attempt to retreat into mystery, which is all too often a cleverly disguised way to revel in the kind of ignorance that is tantamount to authoritarian censorship. After all, the denial of idolatries and other falsehoods about God requires some kind of foundation, some knowledge base from which to discern between things that can and cannot be said about God.

Why, for example, do I deny that the psychological sciences can tell us anything interesting about God? Because God is not a thing in our heads, which is the purview of psychological science. Why do I deny that science more generally can tell us anything interesting about God? Because God is not a thing at all; neither one in or along-side the Universe. But, of course, the perceived antipathy between science and religion does not come from scientists having vivisected God as an object of enquiry. Rather, the common idea is that science renders talk of God irrelevant: if we can explain the causes and consequences of this or that phenomenon without speaking of God, then, well, what’s the point of God? But this too is predicated on that same category error that God is a thing, of the same order as other causes and consequences in the world.

Christians claim to believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth, of all things, seen and unseen. Of all things. Not just the remarkable, but also the run-of-the-mill; not just the “miraculous” but also the mundane; not just the Big Bang but also the banal banging together of atoms that has gone on ever since. Indeed, although creation is often talked of in terms of so-called “natural” things, God is as much the maker of cities and symphonies, plays and paintings, theories and technologies. These human phenomena are no less created, just as they are no less natural than the mountains and lakes, molecules and stars to which we are typically drawn. Any less than this affirmation is deficient deism or some other kind of plasticine idolatry. Speaking of deism, the doctrine of creation is not, as too many people unfortunately suppose, the claim that God’s creative act is the first in a series of events that eventually leads to goings-on today and in the future; it is not, for example, the claim that God is the causal antecedent of the Big Bang. There may or may not have been a Big Bang of which God may or may not have been the causal antecedent, but that is largely beside the point. In confessing God as creator we are affirming that God and God alone created the world ex nihilo, that all things—all beings and occurrences, all chains of cause and effect, in all times and in all places—depend absolutely on God, not only for their beginning but also for their continued existence and their end, their fulfillment.

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My aim in this talk has been to try to express what I find peculiar about the way a lot of people talk about science and religion, or about nature and God. Science, people seem to think, has to be explanatorily deficient in order to make way for religion; it has to be incomplete, unable to explain this or that special fact about the Universe, about biological design or cosmological fine-tuning or human consciousness or something. God, people seem to think, only really does what Nature-with-a-Capital-N is unable to do. God steps in, intervenes, when this lesser deity called Nature is insufficient. These ideas, I have said, are based on an odd view of God, of God as a sort of thing, a thing in the world among other things like you and I, quarks and gluons, tables and chairs. A lot of people seem to hold this view, and while it may have the virtue of being intuitive, it does not enjoy the virtue—if it is a virtue—of being recognizably Christian. It is therefore ironic and lamentable that many Christians seem to hold this view too. It is lamentable because these long, drawn out controversies cost religious believers not just their credibility, but also their time and effort that are much better spent on other, more pressing concerns. After all, the Christian belief in God, as expressed in the creeds of the Church is only in part about the believer’s assent to doctrinal statements. What is missing from all this talk of belief is the acknowledgement that Christian faith is primarily faith—that is, trust—in God and, concomitantly, faithfulness to God. The declaration that “We believe” is a throwing of ourselves at the dusty feet of a political criminal unjustly executed, in the dual sense of clinging onto him for dear life and of swearing our allegiance to him with reckless abandon. Anything less is soggy self-help spirituality, shot through with pseudoscience.

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