Jai McConnell left “The Voice” this year in the knockout rounds. A shame, I felt, as she has an instantly recognisable, unique voice; just the kind of thing “The Voice” looks for, in my eyes. But I mention her here because of her chest – and I have in mind her startling ink, not (for instance) her lung capacity. Just in case you thought I meant something else…
In case you can’t get that from the link, it reads “Nothing endures but change”.
There was a time when this would have been a much more controversial statement than it is today. Science, in particular, has come to terms with the fact that what we used to perceive as solid and unchanging is, in fact, changing – mountains are ground down over years, continents move, stars are born, grow and die, even the universe itself appears to have a defined beginning and the prospect of a long-away heat death. Solid matter is not only not solid, being mostly empty space, but even the particles of which it is composed are at their most fundamental level something more like vibrations, and even their positions are ultimately uncertain thanks to Werner Heisenberg.
We have had to move beyond the philosophical basis we once had, which was for most of the history of Western Civilisation fundamentally Platonic. The observable world was, to Platonism, a corrupted and degraded echo of an intangible world of ideals; the ideal was fixed and unchanging and perfect, and the more untouched by outside influences something was, the nearer perfection it was viewed as being – hence (in part) the value placed on gold, which was for a long time the most unreactive metal known.
Platonism went hand in hand with atomism, the idea that everything could eventually be broken down into indivisible (a-tomos from “no cutting”) particles which were then combined like building blocks, and which were in a way “perfect”, as they didn’t change. But the atom was split, and the result is a host of subatomic particles which at some level appear and disappear and are defined by probability densities rather than locations and sizes, and even those are as much waves as particles.
Of course, all these concepts actually allow us to describe how things work far better than did the old concepts; technologies derived from this thinking allow, for instance, the writing of this blog and its transmission to its readers, as well as countless other applications throughout the lives of most people in the developed world. The 21st century Physicist largely regards the Platonic philosophical basis as useless, pointless, a distraction from how things actually are.
Not so, however, much 21st century Theology, including those parts of theology labelled “conservative”, “orthodox” or “evangelical”, not to mention “fundamentalist”. This is hardly surprising; the New Testament is, in one way of looking at it, the point where Jewish monotheism got translated into Greek language and, in the process, into Greek philosophical concepts, notably Platonism. A new set of philosophical concepts gave rise to a new way of conceiving of God and of God’s relationship with mankind. I will grant that that is not by any means all that happened in the process, but it is most definitely one of the things which happened.
Towards the end of last year and stretching into the early part of this year, a lot of blog posts were talking about concepts such as process theology and open theism. Partly these seem to stem from a piece by Roger Olson (some are linked to at Homebrewed Christianity), but some posts seem to have been independent of the line of discussion which was set off by that post, such as this one from James McGrath. This led me to start thinking about the general area of God-concepts, and I’ll write a bit more about my historical position there later.
It has, I think, to be said that ditching a God-concept in favour of a new one is a really major upheaval. Tony Jones I think touches on this, saying “This is: By almost every measure, process theology is a radical rejection of what the church has believed for 1600 years, so what voice do you think the historic church and classical theism [has] in our present situation?” This is a very fair point. One commentator (who I cannot now find a link to) said, in effect, that adopting process theology was rather like installing a completely new operating system on your computer; you don’t do that unless you have to, as there’s a significant possibility that all of your programmes will need to change or at least be updated.
I’m going to suggest that we have to, and, in fact, that we should have done this years ago. Part of the reason is that given above; science has moved beyond Platonic thinking and the philosophical structure which we now think best reflects the way things actually are is very non-Platonic indeed; to try to impose Platonic ideas on modern science would be to warp and distort it so that it was of much less utility in describing things and predicting events (though those two may best be thought of as the same – it may be that we should think only of events and not of things at all). Assuming for a moment that theology actually relates to how things actually are, should we not bring theology into line with science here?
There are other more detailled reasons, however, which I’ll go on to in the next post.