EAGER: Matthew Lamb, in a symposium of theologians entitled Paradigm Change in Theology, agrees with others that Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) not only demonstrated that revolutions take place in science through changes in the scientific community, and not only described the paradigm shifts of these changes, but also by his very writing historicized science, that is, showed science to be, not an immutable body of knowledge, waiting to be revealed, but a process of discovery depending very much on the community in which it was discovered.
This providing of a discipline such as natural science always with a context of human beings and human community readily applies also to theology: most frequently changes take place in theological expression of values because of the needs of the contexts of modern life.
CURIOUS: Surely you are saying both that science and theology are known to us through the same reasoning processes, and that each is subject to critique in terms of context, in the context of both time and place.
EAGER: Yes. One of my own mentors, theoretical physicist Sir John Polkinghorne, has argued for a pattern of reasoning common to both theology and science, which is called “Critical Reasoning.” Polkinghorne, while continuing to be a physicist, at the age of 50 was ordained an Anglican priest, and has a long record of interpreting the two disciplines to each other.
CURIOUS: To what extent does this critical reasoning help our understanding of theology?
EAGER: The first such examples are contemporary with the changes in science brought about through application of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. In 1860 there was published a volume Essays and Reviews, by seven theologians one of whom was to become Archbishop of Canterbury. This book was widely read and officially condemned after 11,000 clergy affirmed their belief in the inspiration of scripture and the eternity of damnation. The essays were a mild compilation of thoughtful references to Christian beliefs which would in the following hundred years be followed by a full scale critique on a historical basis of the scriptures and of some credal theological beliefs. In that same period we have learned to distinguish between faith in God as of the same order of trustfulness we would have with a human person, and beliefs in details about how that God is known.
CURIOUS: So we learned something about the difference between theology and faith?
EAGER: One of our correspondents has complimented us on our dialogue, then adds the following:
“What an impressive and condensed account of developments in theology and physics! I do think, though, that we should not forget that alongside theology, there continued a strong and deep tradition of spirituality, devotion, meditation — in short the affective side of faith that remained (and remains, in many quarters) largely untouched by developments in science. If you connect with God through practice rather than theory, scientific theory does not affect your faith. (Faithfully yours, Pat Eberle)”
CURIOUS: I suppose your correspondent is referring to what we might call the emotional side of religious faith, in which personal spirituality is cultivated by the practice of prayer, love of neighbour and community living as in some kind of family.
EAGER: Yes. And the difference between science and faith is that this emotional, imaginative, or spiritual side of life is the subject matter of theological reasoning; whereas the subjective matter of scientific reasoning is observation of external nature, its causes and its effects.
CURIOUS: That’s helpful. But I want to know in what ways theological reflection has changed, whether as a result of the examples of natural science, or of interaction with the spiritual, faith-focused subject matter of theology.
EAGER: I mentioned the nineteen century (and earlier) obsession with rewards and punishment after death. In our modern age a responsible Roman Catholic theologian can write a serious dissertation setting out to prove theologlically that no one goes to hell; I have the book in my library
-Apokatastasis, by Esteban Deak.
CURIOUS: I would not boast about that title in the pub!
EAGER: Bear in mind the picture of a wrathful God we get both from the books of Psalms and from the Bible. It is carried over into much theological writing, and certainly into popular misunderstanding of the Christian faith. This image is coupled with that of an Almighty God. Yet Jesus plainly showed compassion and invited others to be compassionate, so that that Almighty and often Wrathful God is also All-Merciful, and one not desiring sacrifice.
CURIOUS: I know that we who ask questions are always being told we have to solve the mystery of how an Almighty God can allow the kind of evil that is all through the world He (note the gender) had created.
EAGER: Now we have from many sides: the consensus is that the God revealed to us in Jesus is a God of Love, indeed a God who is Love.
CURIOUS: Remember the old joke about the lover who announced himself: exasperated at his beloved’s shut door, he meant to say “For the love of God,” but his words came out “ Open for the God of Love!” - which produced an instant effect.
EAGER: Theologians such as Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, and one of his mentors Hans Urs von Balthasar, would argue that God’s power (God’s almightiness) is derived from God’s love, the core of divine being.
CURIOUS: I expect we should change our prayers from “Almighty God” to “All-Loving God.”
EAGER: God does not teach us to admire might, but to share in love, and the goods of the creation are seen as good things created in God’s love.
CURIOUS: But what about evil?
EAGER: You may say: what about suffering, for it is suffering among us that reveals evil to us. Even if God is Love, how can such a God permit evil and suffering. How can we have faith, how can God be credible?
EAGER: Only if we see God as - as vulnerable as we are.