2018 Intersections Conference

Thoughts prompted by the Intersections Conference

Paul S. Julienne  

It was a pleasure to participate in the stimulating Intersections 2018 Conference on culture May 17-19, 2018, at Northern Seminary.  This event reminded us that culture provides the sea in which we swim. We cannot avoid it.  We also make it as we participate in it by living our lives.   I would like to offer a few thoughts based on my perspective as an Anglican lay person whose professional career has been in the sciences.  

If I had to come up with a single word to characterize the Conference, it would be “imagination.”   I heard Eugene Peterson say many years ago in a talk at Oxford University:  “What our imagination does with reality is the reality we live by.”  Amen.   Culture informs our imaginations, and we in turn give to the culture imaginative resources that return to form us and others.   Here I have in mind an obsolete, yet precise, meaning of “inform”: to communicate shape or form to something to make it what it is.  Imagination is not “imaginary.”  It can be godly or ungodly.  To C. S. Lewis, the baptized imagination was a prime place for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  

The two Cities  

As a scientist, I like to situate culture in its broader “cosmological” context of the whole of Reality.  Before getting to Conference themes, I would like to reflect a bit on how Augustine’s great work, The City of God, does this and gives us a distant mirror in which we can still see ourselves.  This Christ-centered tale of two cities imaginatively reads the Scriptural story of the entire cosmos from creation to new creation in terms of the inextricably intertwined paths of the City of Man and City of God. The story is thus centered in a transcendent order made immanent in God’s good creation: humanity’s sin-marred deficient imaging of God is addressed by the Word-become-flesh for our sake to restore humanity to God’s good telos for the world.   Christianity is thus inescapably social and political, that is, it plays out in the community of human beings that comprise the polis.  Our end is in the polis of the heavenly Jerusalem, symbolically yet powerfully portrayed in Revelation 21.  

To Augustine the two Cities are defined by the object of their loves–love of self or love of God.  Augustine was a consummate political realist, knowing the depraved depths of human sin and self-love, present even in the Church.  Yet he also knew the transformative power of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Christ-followers are to order their loves rightly and seek the good of the City of Man even as they live in hope in the present age, the saeculum, according to the ways of the City of God on pilgrimage towards its glorious end. History is not comprised of recurring and hopeless cycles of no escape but by the telos of the City to come.  

Augustine poses a large and still contemporary question in the book: how do sinful human beings achieve felicitas, or “happiness,” in each of the Cities?    The Roman pagans in the City of Man could only find transient peace and felicitas of a worldly type within the immanent frame of the earthly City, where nothing is permanent.  The innumerable Roman gods were too like us, too bound to the violent and deceptive ways of the saeculum or else too aloof to be of any help.  In other words, the gods of the popular imagination were too immanent, insufficiently transcendent to offer hope.  Since the telos of the heavenly City was eternal and transcendent, Christians could even now in this life achieve a real measure of felicitas by orienting their desires and loves towards the ways of Christ as they participate in the pilgrimage of the City of God towards its promised end.  Humanity’s telos is not immanent but transcendent.  More precisely, the immanent and transcendent are co-penetrating, for the Word became flesh, after all, initiating a new creation.  Human beings can never escape that essential truth, no matter how hard they try.   

Our world and Augustine’s are both similar and different.  In his time the familiar political order of nearly two millennia of classical civilization was rapidly changing.  Rome was coming apart in the West, having been sacked by Alaric the Visigoth in 410 AD, the event that had provoked the writing of The City of God.  The Vandal Goths were besieging Augustine’s own North African city of Hippo Regius even as he was dying (430 AD) and fell soon after.  The world of Western Europe was about to enter a new era, the “middle ages” between modernity and classical antiquity.   Augustine had sought a vision of reality that was Christ- and Scripture-centered, where the community of the Church was the authoritative place to learn of these matters.   That community lives on, and its animating principles are the same even if the saeculum has a very different shape now.  

Our time together  

Now it is time to turn our attention to the Intersections Conference.  Again, one simple word introduced by Scot McKnight defined for me an overall theme: Christoformity.  I actually had not heard this term before, but it is a felicitous one.   After all, Paul tells us concerning Christ, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).  Good spiritual formation is essential, and human beings achieve their best measure of felicitas as they become conformed to be like Christ.  Pastors should be pastoral, like the Good Shepherd, enabling Christ to be seen.   A priest–Christ-followers are all priests–are to exercise a priestly ministry of presence where the ways of Jesus are seen and heard amidst the incessant distractions of the saeculum.  

David Fitch reminded us of the hazard of tacking too close to Reinhold Niebuhr’s take on Christ and culture, a familiar mindset that is all too seductive in leading us to think we can fix things.  Those who follow Christ are to be among those who suffer, and make a place where God can work instead of thinking we can do his work for him.  Watch out for paternalism, a theme emphasized by many speakers.  

Kuyboem Lee reminded us that the monuments we erect in the saeculum tell us a lot about ourselves.  Our monuments in turn form us.  Christ left only one monument, his empty cross, with the command to always remember with thanksgiving that it once was filled by his broken body and spilt blood.    The world builds static monuments in space and stone to its values.  I am reminded of Trajan’s column in Rome showing forth his military victories and the glory of empire.  What a contrast to our thanksgiving meal, our eucharist, a living monument in time, constantly repeated to make present to the gathered community the only victory that counts.  The upside-down logic of the cross and its scandalous wisdom is the only power capable of subverting the culture of asymmetric power and distorted loves of the saeculum.  The kingdom of which the eucharist is a sign offers our only hope of true justice, true shalom, and we should nurture our imaginations in its light.  

Jennifer McBride’s words reinforced Augustine’s view that the gospel is inherently political, that is, it is lived out in and for the sake of the polis, the real world in which we live.  Yet the Church needs a bold yet humble and non-triumphant public witness to the Lordship of Christ.  Christians are all too often seen as going along with the culture in their judgment of and separation from others.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers better wisdom on being a faithful follower of Christ.  Grace is not cheap.  The mark of the Church in the world should be confession and repentance for our own complicity in the sin of the world, whether individually or on the part of the Church.  Such a stance opens up the possibility of forgiveness and new life in Christ.   Be present to the world, practice hospitality, pray, always have a repentant heart.  Repentance means a change of heart and mind from the ways of the saeculum.  Again, Christoformity.  

I suspect Augustine would have approved of William Cavanaugh’s critique of Charles Taylor.   Not that Taylor was wrong in saying that we all now live in an immanent frame, blind to transcendence, for as I noted above, from one point of view, one might even say that the enchanted saeculum of Augustine’s time was too immanent.  We all tend to keep our sights too low, in spite of what we say, and thus idolize the immanent.  The Bible scrambles the immanent and transcendent, subverting our categories.  The Word becomes flesh.  Our bodies become the temple of the Holy Spirit: Christ in you, the hope of glory.  Yet we only see the nation-state, the consumer market, idols all.  Augustine would agree, and point us to the only telos that can satisfy our restless hearts.  Presence, prayer, the power of repentance to shape our pilgrimage.  

Another Taylor, David, told us about art and its transformative power.  Again, Amen.  Human beings are not just rational animals.  Paul told us to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  The Greek word for mind, nous, means more than the modern word “mind.”  It is closer to our apprehending power to take in the world, including head and heart together.  Our ability to know and perceive beauty is perhaps one of the best ways to break through a kind of modern “scientific” rationalism that sees a human being as a thinking creature who can encompass the world within the scope of his rational confinement.   Our rational pretensions provide another idol that blinds us to beauty.  Let the arts serve Christoformity.  The beautiful is a unique missionary, reaching places that mere words will never touch.  

And finally the gift of hearing from Esau McCaulley.  On the day before Pentecost, after all, with its multicultural wonders.  I could only sit and listen and drink in the honest opening up of a world that I have not inhabited.  I hope we all were able to see some of the many hues by which black expresses both suffering and beauty.    Many speakers had touched on the theme of “the Other.”  I am reminded that Augustine is one of those who taught us that “the Other” is also in God: the Son is other than the Father, the Spirit is other than the Son, yet the three dance as one.  Part of the mystery of the dance is that Christ suffered.  To follow Christ faithfully is to advocate for those who suffer.   There is much left undone.  

To summarize, our imaginations were fed.   We learned a bit about the unjust relationships in the saeculum, unjust now just as in Augustine’s day, always asymmetric between the powerful and the powerless.    Yet now as then, Jesus’ kingdom is one of justice.  We are all equal at the foot of the cross.   So the Church is called to a confessing and repenting culture of presence to the world and to one another.  Have no fear of “the Other.”  Truly see and hear them.  Be Christ to them, and let them be Christ to you.  Always be civil, seek the good of the “Other.”  

Fear is a bad master, creating separation and division. Be aware of history, what has gone before. Don’t make the same mistakes over and over.  God is in control.  He is the Creator of all that is. We get to be his agents, but not by “doing it all ourselves.”  Or job is to be good ambassadors for Christ. He makes his appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:20).  Humanity remains God’s project, not ours.  Our role is to be good witnesses to the love of God in Christ Jesus, and to make space where God can work, where the Spirit can give life.  The Spirit’s creedal role is to be the giver of life.  Stay centered on Christ and seek formation in his ways.  

A Great Renewal?  

Now to get back to what science could possibly have to do with it all.  First, the relation of “science” and “religion” is a major aspect of our engagement with culture.  Aggressive “new atheists” make unsustainable claims about science and religion, and a picture of conflict between these two is rampant.  It is a statistical fact that many young people leave the faith due to the common cultural assumption that this conflict means that opting for one excludes the other.  This widespread misperception needs to be addressed with honesty and intellectual integrity.  There are many Anglican voices that are doing this, including our speaker Scot McKnight.  He recently co-authored a book Adam and the Genome that deals with how Christian theology can read the Bible, especially Genesis 1-3, while taking account of findings from genomic and evolutionary science.   Scot’s literary reading, which is neither mythical nor literal, but I would say is truer than either in retaining the unique authority of Scripture, establishes important guidelines to keep in mind.  It represents an essential step in the right direction.  I share a passion with Scot that young people (or anyone) not lose their faith because of bad teaching about the relation of “science” and “faith.”   The relation is more subtle and significant than can be captured by simplistic metaphors of mere conflict or harmony.  

To my mind as a scientist, what science actually knows about our cosmos is far more compatible with the story of Reality told in Scripture and revealed in Christ than it is with any metaphysically reductive view of science popular with the “new atheists.”    More importantly, our culture needs a saner and more balanced view of the God-world relationship.   For such a view is closely implicated in our imaginative grasp of the reality by which we live.  Is there a God?  If so, what is God like?  Is this sensible world all there is?  Is this universe hospitable, inhospitable or indifferent to human life?  Is there any meaning to my life?  How should I act–what is right and what is wrong?  We all have at least implicit and intuitive answers to such questions, whether we are consciously aware of them or not.  Science does not answer such questions, nor can it, and only a false scientism could claim otherwise.   

Contemporary Christians need to be as confident and bold as Augustine was in affirming the cosmic significance of Christ: in the “beginning” was the Word, the Logos, the very “logic” and Reason of all of Reality.  I say this as a scientist, knowing the scope of what science has disclosed about the cosmos, from tiny “fundamental particles” to arrays of galaxies with a long evolutionary history of development since a “Big Bang.”  All things hold together in Christ, and the Gospel of peace remains good news for scientists as well as for the rest of humanity.   At least, it can be good news if the Church can take a stance of authentic Christoformity.  

Augustine’s cosmological vision in The City of God drew upon not only Scripture but also the best history, literature, philosophy and “science” of his time to render an account of all of Reality.  Augustine upheld the idea of creation ex nihilo (“from nothing”) as a good creation by its utterly transcendent Trinitarian Creator.  This classical doctrine of Christian theism is widely misunderstood today and oft confused with a modern notion of “creationism,” a truncated misperception quite unlike the classical understanding.   

Many Anglican voices such as Sir John Polkinghorne and Alister McGrath have sought through many books to articulate a better way of relating science and Christian faith.   Simon Oliver, a Canon of Durham Cathedral and professor at the University of Durham, recently wrote a book, Creation: a Guide for the Perplexed, to clearly present the classical doctrine of creation ex nihilo and explain its difference from modern distortions.  I too have attempted to relate contemporary science and theology in the light of the Logos of Christ in various writings available on my Sources web site.  I have a short article specifically on creation ex nihilo.   The latter even ends with a poem, reflecting my view that science and the arts can and should interact.   

Finally, today a mix of technologies, especially biotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI), threaten a revolution of unprecedented power to reshape our human future in ways that are not benign.  Technology defines our cultural context now.  Technology, with its great potential for good or for bad, is a fruit of another revolution, the “scientific” one heralded long ago by one of its great prophets, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626).  Bacon called for a “Great Renewal” (Instauratio Magna, 1620) with a new “instrument” or “logic” (Novum Organum) to replace the university Aristotelianism of his day, namely, the new empirical science and its methods.  Bacon gave us the aphorism “knowledge is power,” power to control and manipulate our human environment as we wish.  Bacon, as well as most scientists, would see this prospect of control being used benevolently for the betterment of human life.  Medical science is a good example.  But if knowledge, “science,” becomes disconnected from any transcendent good or telos, its fruit, technology, can become a harsh taskmaster, rendering anything “good” simply because human beings can do it.  What is “good” becomes what is useful according to some immanent telos we make up because we can.  Welcome to the immanent frame of our postmodern world.  I don’t think it would have surprised Augustine.  

Baconian science, no matter how good it is in principle, cannot tell us what is right or wrong.    Ultimately this is because Bacon applied William of Occam’s very sharp “razor” to shave off Aristotelian “formal” and “final” causes from the world.  Modern people no longer know what these closely related ”causes” are—they have become incomprehensible or implausible, in spite of the fact that we never really do without them.    In a nutshell, “form” tells us what something is, that is, what is its nature, essence or meaning.  “Finality” or “telos” tells us what something is for.  Thus, if we do not know what something is, or what it is for, we have no way of telling whether it is “good” or “bad.”  It just is a given.  Machines are good or bad according to their usefulness. Since human being cannot do without some telos, we can only look to usefulness for a criterion.  The rich and powerful of the world, not the poor and weak, normally get to define what “useful” is.  Is not this what multiple voices at our Conference told us to be wary of?  

Simon Oliver’s book mentioned above explains how the modern mind came to think this way.  To the new Baconian logic, we only needed “material” and “efficient” causes to understand the world: matter and the forces acting on it.   Isaac Newton did not need to know what gravity “is” in order to make calculations based on the mathematical form of the forces acting between material objects.  The world came to be seen as a machine.  Thus its apparent design could only be imposed upon it externally, instead of arising intrinsically and internally from its form and telos, expressive of a good logos underlying the world.  God the designer eventually becomes superfluous to the mechanical forces and scientific order of the “real” world, and we are left only to do whatever we want with the imaginary “God” of our private imaginations.  However, as I do modern physics, I cannot help but see classical form and telos everywhere, even in atomic and molecular structure.  Science needs a recovery operation on these essential concepts if it is to be faithful to the logos of Reality.  

Will our technology only be informed by the power of the saeculum, with its necessarily flattened version of Reality confined to the immanent frame with its telos of self-love and utility?  As Augustine knew so well in his own era, we can and must do better than that if humanity is to flourish.  

Consequently, can we have a Great Renewal of the human imagination for our time centered on the cosmic logic of Christ?  Can the face of God seen in Jesus draw the world to its form and telos grounded in goodness, truth, beauty, and self-giving love.  Can we recover the depth of such familiar words, whose meanings have been severely truncated by the flattened horizon of the modern saeculum?   Love is defined by Christ, not by the saeculum.  The love of God manifested in Christ Jesus is ultimately the only good news the world has.  It is good news for all people and for all time, and all knowledge or “science” can stand in its light.  The form of Christ is never to be imposed by the ways of deception and violence inherent in the saeculum.  Christoformity can only come by the attractive power of goodness and love, a work of the Spirit.   

Can our science come to appreciate creation as a gift, not just a given? Furthermore, it is a gift of love with the telos of enabling our participation in its developmental order.  Participation is pilgrimage towards our final City.  The theology of gift is powerful.   It is the Christocentric logic of the Bible.  A gift calls for thanksgiving, which is the heart of eucharist: thanksgiving for my own life, for parents, relatives, friends and neighbors, even for the “Other;” thanksgiving also for the created order, atoms and galaxies all.   

Do we have the confidence to live with no fear in the City of God amidst the City of Man?  For “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:17). The telos of the heavenly City is love, for Scripture in the end is simply a love story, and we are to live according to its rightly ordered love.  Augustine said it simply and beautifully in The City of God (XV.22):  “Hence, as it seems to me, a brief and true definition of virtue is ‘rightly ordered love.’  That is why in the holy Song of Songs Christ’s bride, the City of God, sings ‘Set love in order for me.’”  Does this song not define the challenge of our time?  Can Scripture’s song be an imaginative springboard to energize a Great Renewal of culture where knowledge and love are rightly ordered, no longer separated?

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