Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Serious Cosmological Theology

Today I was reading the transcript of Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures in the book, "The Varieties of Scientific Experience.” I think Sagan is thoroughly modern, eschewing all notion of faith or belief. However, he helpfully critiques the narrowness of Western-religion's cosmology.

He writes, "The number of external galaxies beyond the Milky Way is at least in the thousands of millions and perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of millions each of which contains a number of stars more or less comparable to that in our own galaxy. So if you multiple out how many stars that means, it is some number - let's see, ten to the... It's something like a one followed by twenty-three zeros, of which our Sun is but one. It is a useful calibration of our place in the universe. And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religions and especially no Western religions." (27).

The immensity of the universe begs the question of the uniqueness of life. And if life is rare, but not unique, what of the arc of the salvific history espoused by Christianity? Does all life inevitably trace this story line? Thomas Paine wrote of this question, "From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who has millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman ate an apple? And on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation has an Eve, an apple, a serpent and a redeemer?" While Process Theology has enumerable and intractable problems, the tradition has at least taken cosmology seriously. Michael Lodahl, and, of course, Alfred North Whitehead, come to mind. Though, this tradition then usually jettisons the salvific history, for an endless processing history, which seems to reform the very historic Christianity into just another universal (read, ahistoric) religion. In comparison, Radial Orthodoxy has not shown that they are open to accepting modern science. The reunification of faith and reason stops short of evolution. This is a strange demarcation line considering the Catholic Church, which strongly influences R.O., has long held that evolutions and faith are fully commensurable. More broadly, C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy seems to suggest that the chapters of history play out on all planets that inhabit life, and God, rather than abandoning all others for the sake of one, provides His Providence and, ultimately, Salvation, to all.

Perhaps more concerning is the finite-tenancy we have on the Earth. Sagan writes, "Some 5, 6, or 7 billion years from now, the Sun will become a red giant star and will engulf the orbits of Mercury and Venus and probably the Earth. The Earth then would be inside the Sun and some of the problems that face us on this particular day will appear, by comparison, modest. On the other hand, since it is 5,000 or more million years away, it is not our most pressing problem. But it is something to bear in mind. It has theological implications." (20).
Indeed, theological implications abound.

While addressing the important theological questions of ecological-stewardship, some attention should be given to cosmological-theology in general, and cosmological-stewardship in specific. More broadly, issues of eschatology, economy, and revelation all garner relevance in this endeavor.

To end, Sagan has some helpful thoughts: “In fact, a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the god portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much les of a universe.” Here Sagan and I are in complete agreement. He continues, “I don’t propose that it is a virtue to revel in our limitations. But it’s important to understand how much we do not know. There is an enormous amount we do not know; there is a tiny amount that we do.” (30). Christians may respond that what they do know is that God’s creation is good – no matter how vast or how dark, or how empty it might seem to be.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Seminary as Univerisity and Univirsity

Somehow my work has revolved around seminary education itself. In a sense, I have been dealing with meta-theological education. The nature, structure and desired end of seminary education are important questions rather than codified answers. The root of seminary comes from the Latin, sēminārium or even more simply sēmin, or seed. Thus, seminary is a place of planting and tending to seeds. So, seminary cultivates theological acumen, pastoral disposition and bold leadership. The etymology also reminds one of the many agrarian references in the Bible: the lilies of field, the tares among the wheat, the day laborers and on and on.

The construction of the modern university also intrigues me. This is especially the case considering the work of John Milbank. His interest to commence a Christian Enlightenment (making theology the master discourse, precisely because none can master it) is a reconstruction of the university. The project would be to invaginate the university. Instead of outward radiating, the myriad discourses would be constituted and affirmed inwardly by theology. An academic wheel, where the theology would be the center hub and the other sciences would act as spokes. This was the case not so long ago in the 17th century when theology was said to be the “queen of the sciences.” In 1810, Berlin University was founded and was to become the model for the modern university. Vociferous discussion took place as to if theology ought to be part of the new university structure. Friedrich Schleiermacher argued successfully for its inclusion, but theology was relegated as merely one discourse among many, and later, damnably, its whole dissected into discrete parts (Bible as literature, Theology as philosophy, Christian history as history, and Practical ministry and psychology and sociology).

The German, early 20th century model for the university became the indispensible archetype. The root of university is denoted in its project and structure. First, it comes from the word “universe” which derives from Latin. It consists of two words: uni (one) and vertere (to turn). Thus, the “universe” or the “university” is enveloping (or turning) everything into one thing. Yet, in trying to speak of everything usually says nothing.

So, let me suggest an idea. Let me play a language game. Instead of the seminary aspiring to become the university, let it rather be both a univerisity and a univirsity.

The univerisity is not concerned with everything, but rather concerned with a specific something that signifies everything. Thus, theological education centers around uni (one) veritas (truth). This truth is singular, particular and the master signifier. It is the master signifier because it is the first sign: the Word, Christ Jesus, the only Son of God. This particular truth initiates, situates and norms any further construction in theological education. The univerisity (one-truth) becomes a pronouncement as to the institutions’ originating genesis, productive synthesis, and culminating thesis. The fidelity to the Veritas becomes then the measure of the mission.

The seminary should also be the univirsity. In this sense, the name proclaims the Incarnation. That Jesus of Nazareth was Christ. Thus, it is the vir or, in Latin, the man, that creates this truth. This uni (one) vir (man) is then the entire construction of theological education, because He is the word (logos) of God (Theos). Thus, Robert Banks’ definition for theological education, “To Know God in Christ and to help others know God in Christ” is an appropriate one. Christ then properly becomes the theological and educative keystone.

In the 19th century, Christian theology was relegated to being just another subject among multiple subjects in the modern university. Since then, it has only continued to decline in importance and has been forcibly moved farther from the center, literally 'marginalized' to the periphery. DePaul University, the largest Catholic school in the country, doesn’t have a theology department, but only a “Religious Studies” department. Neither does Northwestern University, founded by Methodists and until the 1920’s were the ‘Fighting Methodist.” Christian theology isn’t even offered a special place among the varied world religions, even at universities that were founded as Christian institutions. So, what theological education needs is not a transformed university – as this project must be abandoned – but for seminaries and those few remaining theological departments to be univerisities and univirsities. Theological education must engage not with everything rolled into one, but more simply with one Truth and one Man found in the person of Christ.