Who am I? Who are we? Why are we here? Why does it matter?
These are questions as old as time. These are questions that also take new shape and gain new context and nuance as time moves forward, presenting us with new ways to explore shared concerns. The book Life’s Edge: The Search For What It Means to be Alive by Carl Zimmer recently helped bring some of these questions to life in a new way, most notably in how he underscores the simple truth that there is no true and shared defintion of life that guides scientific progress and interest, only operating assumptions that inform these interests in one way or another, which, it is worth mentioning, is highly inconsistent and debated within its application. How the question of significance gets played out within an increasingly expanding cosmological view can seemingly press in two directions- exposing life here on earth as insignificant, or increasing its sense of wonder, which of course is where this moves from a seeming concern for science to an inevitable concern for questions that rightly belong in the arena of philosophy and theology. Where and how we draw lines between these fields of study and where and how they overlap is something that ebbs and flows with the ongoing trends of the day, unfortunately resulting in certain tensions and divisions more often than not.
What perhaps flows from these questons more specifically is a concern for locating meaning or meaning making within the practical pursuit of the scientific data. This is where and how the data moves from fact to narrative, informing not simply what we know but how it is that we apply this knowledge in meaningful ways to life itself. One such person arguing for a more cohesive and cooperative relationship between these fields and their shared or codependant interests is author Christopher L. Fisher, who’s working thesis in his book Human Significance in Theology and the Natural Sciences demonstrates his belief that human beings have “vital significance in the cosmos, and this significance is visible to both theology and science.” Given this visibility, Fisher believes that both science and theology can bring necessary perspective to the converstaion from within their respective fields by adopting what he calls a critical anthropocentrism. Here I would like to interact with HSTNS, along with the three voices he critiques (Pannenber, Rahner, and Zizioulas), with the goal of understanding the contemporary dialogue surrounding this notion of human significance through the lens of his two main ideas which help bring clarity to this idea of critical anthropocentrism, which desires to reject the typical markers of human exceptionalism while reemploying a critical lens as a way to uncover human significance as necessary for understanding meaning in this world. These are,
1. The idea of humanity as the center or focal point of creation/natural world
2. The idea that both fields (philosophy/theology and science) operate within specific boundaries, and any proper discussion of human significance by nature over-reaches and blurs these boundaries necessarily.
Primary Issue #1: The idea of humanity as the center or focal point of creation/natural world.
The idea of humanity as the center or focal point of creation demands attention from both a theological and scientific perspective, as it informs not only how we apply the data as a meaning-making exercise, but also the assumptions that make sense of our pursuit of the data. To pare this down to a simpler question of interest, one might want to ask, for example, whether it is appropriate, or more rightly necessary for philosophy/theology or science to present humanity as the pinnacle or height of the creative or evolutionary story. Further, is there good reason for making such an assumption when considering the nature of both philosophy/theology and science against the available data, and does thinking in such terms aid or hamper the developmpent of a proper scientific aim or theo-centric focus? And lastly, does making this assumption present any challenges for reconciling science with the philosophical/theological interest?
Establishing the two key doctrines of Christian theology as the “imago Dei” (made in the image of God) and the “incarnation” (the indwelling of God in the world), Fisher moves towards a critical anthropocentricsm, seeing it as that which attempt to “seek to incorporate appropriate sensitivities, criticisms, and nuances into an justified form of anthropocentrism.” He describes the activity of anthropocentrism as “modern Christian theology in dialogue with modern science”, which understands that when seen in relationship to one another we can then recognize and locate the modern discussion with a greater degree of clarity. Fisher sees the concepts of the Imago Dei and the Incarnation as human centric ideas grounded in a greater theo-centric reality. Here it is worth pausing to acknowledge the specific “Christian language Fisher is using, but his ideas do translate into the broader discussion of both philosophy and theism/deism. From a theological perspective, humanity is the primary means through which creation can then gain its meaning. Simply put, without humanity and its distinctiveness meaning would not be a something the world could or would be concerned with. Thus, as science engages the world it assumes that humanity holds meaning and that humanity likewise gives meaning to the whole of the natural world where it otherwise wouldn’t exist. Where these two ideas sit in tension is typically where science must then attend for this meaning in reational terms, and further for how to apply this meaning to lesser and greater degrees. Where science gets expressedas a narrative, what often gets lost in translation is that this forces it to make assumptions that sit beyond the boundaries of its particular concern. Which we can see happening all the time.
Similarly, from a theological perspective, humanity is the primary means through which creation is able to share in fellowship with the Divine/Creator, or “God”. In a more specific Christian sense, to cite an example, this is found in a developed Christology that brings both the natural and the divine into relationship with one another, the bringing together of heaven and earth so to speak, which in the ancient world (and the modern one, although we don’t often recognize it in these terms) was caught up in tendencies to remove God from the natural world and relegate the idea to a distant, largely removed and unconcerned entity, or set God in contest with humanty by way of the natural order (the elements). In any case, the necessary uniqueness of humanity remains an important question regardless of how one sees this relationship between nature/human and the divine. Which is to say, whether we are speaking of science or philosophy/theology, how we answer the question of human distinctivness will play out in the kinds of questions and concerns we give our attention to when we study and practice within these given fields, and more importantly how it is we live in this world in relationship to both the natural and/or the divine realities.
Pannenberg, who long argued that humanity exists in relationship with the natural world (his deep concern as a scientist) as part of our ongoing relationship to the divine (his deep conviction as a theologian and open theist) sees it as uniquely human to be open to transcendence within the natural and material world, as taken together this can “hope for, long for, and strive for that which can then inform our experience.” He also sees humanity through the lens of the Imago Dei, which is the image of God represented in (or within) humanity itself. It is the incarnation that allows us to fulfill this destiny and to function as image bearers of the transcendent in a physical and material world precisely because God takes residence and occupies space within and exists in relationship to the natural/physical world. This union with Christ comes by way of the spirits dwelling within the whole of the created order, which is precisely where it is able to declare creation as good and meaningful in its indwelling within nature. Both the science and the philosphy/theology would seem to agree to some end that the Imago Dei (to use its Christian sense, but also to use it in larger religious and philosphical sense), or this idea of meaning and that unique ability to afford the natural order its meaning, cannot be realized outside of humanities significance, and therefore can only be fully realized within some idea of the incarnation (again, using the particular Christian language but speaking of a universal concept), that is, meaning taking up residence in us so as to afford us the freedom to then declare this given meaning over the whole of the natural/physical world as we stand in relationship to it.
Both Pannenberg and Rahner, another scientific mind dedicated to questions of philosophy/theology, retain a sense of historicity in their shared conviction of a human centric reality, although Rahner is not quite as bound by this historicity. He sees history as a single event (the incarnation and the resurrection in a Christian sense) in which “historical, cultural, and scientific develpments are… important for uncovering the fullness of truth in any given event of God’s action in the world, because they may reveal aspects of a doctrine previously unavailable.” He views human knowledge as incomplete and necessariy grounded in the idea of “becoming”, and thus this points not to a developing and progressive moral agency but of a continuous revealing of this given Truth in each moment within history as a form of contextulization in line with human evolution. Rahner continues to flesh this idea out as a yearning that is observable within theology as an demonstrable relationship with the divine, and likewise in science as the reflection of a radical new level of evolution centralized in human form. “What natural science has done for us is show us… what we already knew philosphically/theologically: in relation to the infinite God (or the Divine nature) human beings will always be and feel finite.” This yearning can see evolution as a process that leads to Christ and Christlikeness and a greater realization and recognition of human signficance in a vast universe. Rahner and Pannenberg both agree that physical and spiritual reality must be seen as unified in their correlating ideas, even if from distinguished approaches, and that they do this precisely by uncovering the underlying working assumptions that drive this question of signficance and meaning. There has been a long standing resistance, and likewise embrace, represented within the field of scientific study towards acknowledging and recognizing that these assumptions are in fact present. Does acknowleging help or impede progress and discovery? A case can be made for both assertion. But in either case, the fact that these assumptions do exist and carry weight remains true, especially when it comes to understanding human sigificance and its ability to read meaning back into the natural world. And at the very least, admitting that this does exist can help infuse these studies with a necessary humility. As James Smith argues in his book Irrationality: The Dark Side of Reason, it is when we believe that we are rational and refuse to aknowledge our own irratitonal leaps in judgement that we become the most irrational, and a dangerous form it it at that. All reason requires a degree of irrtational assumption in order to make any sense in the everydayness of our lives.
The challenges that surface in trying to bridge theological and scientific approaches to human centrality and significance mostly revolve around the issue of causality. Modern, rationalized, scientific approaches tend to attempt to deconstruct the necessity of human significance by demonstrating that the universe does not demand transcendent causality. This might be true for the science itself, which can be done and practiced outside of any imposing or external concerns, but what drives the interests of science is intrinsically related to and wrapped up in the application of this science in terms of giving us meaning and signficance, and thus it can’t truy escape such assumptions. To assume that it can is simply being willfully dishonest about how science works, even if one can make a case for why it might be best for the science itself to leave such emotionaly concerned questions aside. Fisher interacts with these ideas in light of the issues surrounding the idea of the lack of any truly objective rational thought, which becomes evident in any discussion of boundaries. As well, the question of continuity within creation, an idea that science and evolution both see as vital and relevant to the study of material reality, demands appropriate attention. And this is because of the subsequent questions this evokes, where we ask, is it necessary to distinguish humanity apart from non-human creation or to be concerned with human significance at all? Fisher, in dialogue with all three writers represented in this book, argues that the question of human significance is relevant in so far as we are speaking of that part of human nature that distinguishes itself within reality. This fits with Rahner’s thought that humanity is preconditioned towards a yearning to become something other than what it currently is. Theological discourse then can help illuminate transcendent reaity in ways that otherwise liimted within the scope of science, but in a fashion that does not undercut the concern of science itself. In some ways it simply makes it more honest, and thus perhaps more accountable to its own driving assumptions, especially as it flounders within those many inconsistent and embattled definitions of life that I mentioned above.
When dealing with spiritual and material definitions, one must deal with human centrality in relation to a definitive sense of the source of causation, be it described as God or something other. When one raises humanity to a level of significance this automatically blurs the boundaries of our relationship to the transcendent. We are in allegiance to something. For example, if humans are significant in comparison to (insert here), do we then consider humans divine, and if so how does this divination coincide with God’s (or the authoratative other) existence as a higher power on one hand and the worth and meaning of creation and the natural world on the other? The ancients certainly elevated humans to such a degree in terms of status, and there is a strong argument that modernism does similarly. Is the divine intrinsically located within or connected to the material, or does it stand seperate from material reality? And if it stands seperate, to what degree does the divine then interact with the material world in terms of causation and relationship? Fisher addresses the issue of seeing God represented within the material as leading towawrds possible forms of dualism. Christian theology tends to speak fairly consistently of God as both in and above creation, which also recognizes a form of contention with the process of evolution, with the primary question being that of linear trajectory and progress. Are we speaking logically of an upward trajectory and movement from something that was lesser than to something greater or more significant? And this question applies equally to the way we perceive evolution and the way we perceive divination or sanctification. Of concern here is the question of whether our signficance comes from this natural progression or whether our significance is imparted from above apart from any natural progression. To see it as imparted makes sense of how it is that we then impart this same meaning and value to that which we sit in relationship to (the natural world), but how we see this question of progression has immediate impact on how see ourselves in relationship to that which we are affording value. Do we stand above it, alongside it? If we see human significance as wrapped up in our own moral progression and evolution the danger then becomes this sectioning off of portions of humanity as having more significance than others, leading to all sorts of dangerous assumptions and divisions. In any case, meaning and signficance appears to arrive as a kind of grace, be it in a linear narrative, a cyclical one, or a contextualized one.
Further, how do we bridge this notion of an upward movement with the messy and inconsistent nature of the process itself. Evidence seems to suggest that there is no true upward movement, only the results of change in response to our environment, which does seem to pose a challenge to this question of signficance and meaning, both in the material (biological, social, political, historical) sense, and in the transcendent (moral, holiness) sense. And if that idea is challenged, then this then challenges the ability of humanity to afford the natural world its meaning and signficance. This creates a conundrum of rational and logical thought that exposes the underlining assumptions that drive both science and theology. Which is why in both cases it seems better to speak of an assumed significance unrelated to progressive evolution, knowledge or divination. What is most relevant to all studies is humanities inherant “response-ability” to the world it exists within. But again, for this to truly work all studies need to willingly acknowledge such assumptions exist, and that requires the blurring of boundaries lest the whole thing start to collapse into its inherent and incoherent meaninglessness (which much of humanity hates to hear, but it is nevertheless true). Where this perhaps gets muddled and challenged the most is when we are speaking of concern for the future, because it is in thinking about the future that motivations, assumptions and value systems and motivations get most readily exposed. Whether we are speaking of a transcndent imagination or a material reality, people can only live for today if they have some hope for tomorrow. This is scientifically and spiritually true. This might be hope in the idea and promise of new creation, or it might be hope in the long term survival of the human species, but this much is clear- the significance of human life only matters in so far as it exitsts towards some end. This is why we all build our lives around irrational narratives to some degree. Because we won’t survive if we don’t. Which explains our modern obsession with the future, and further our worship of the idea of eternal youth, the very thing that built and continues to sustain the modern, Western education system.
Fisher spends time weighing this unique responsability that humanity appears to have with evidence from the larger animal world. He comes to the conclusion that one must contend both theologically and scientifically with the reality that even with the many examples of overlap and shared distinctives within species and creatures, because we only yet have one example of the evolutionary trajectory to compare ourselves to, humans do, and undeniably so, represent a singular and unique example within the universe in our level of awareness of and our abiity to interact with it. Even if this is only on a material level with no divine or spiritual impetus, this remains true. Here Zizioulas weights in, pushing us to reconsider the theological idea of creation and the fall in respect to a more robust dialogue about the nature of death and its realtionship to good and evil. He sees mortality as a pre-existent reality within creation that demands an eventual completeness or fullness in God. We were intended to move towards this fullness within the natural order, but this same order continues to reveal a tension or these competing natures that either depend on one another for their continued act of creating towards something more, or that represent that (evil) which then must be overcome by the good. In either case, this opens up necessary questions about what this looks like and how it comes about, which in theological terms is what the notion of redemption looks to explore. Zizioulas believes “the only way to overcome mortality is to find a link between creator and created without erasing or collapsing the distinctivness of either and/or devolving into damaging forms of dualism.” In this way he sees the same model of reality applying to humanity’s relaitonship with the natural world in as much as we endow it with its necessary meaning in the way that we have been endowed with a given meaning. This also lends itself to the larger, ongoing question of a preexistent purpose versus reactive action. If Christ was the intention from the get go as the full revelation of the divine, the incarnation must then be that to which humanity was purposed towards towards from the beginning. This leaves room for evil and Sin to be seen as agency rather than moral action, helping to make sense of the less than linear nature of the evolutionary process in both biological and moral terms, and likewise the ongoing move towards the fullness of this revelation being made known and expressed in human significance as imitators of the incarnate Christ. In this sense the fall is a pre-existing nature that pushes back against or interrupts the process of newness and any evidence of the ongoing fulfillment of creation’s mandate to fill the earth with what is true, good and beautiful, setting it in constant tension with itself out of which biology can note this constant order-disorder dichotomy. It’s also worth noting here that more open views are free to consider the death of Christ not as the original intention, but as God’s response to these dualing natures of order or disorder, newness and chaos. This brings up that seemingly persistant and inherenty human question of God’s participation in the order-disorder paradigm, declaring that however it is that God works within the laws of the universe (breaking them or working within them), the important Truth is that God does indeed dwell within it, which is precisely where historicity would come back into play for Pannenber in the story of the incarnation. In any case, each viewpoint plays into the material reality of the evolutionary process in different ways with different challenges and responses, but always with equal concern for recognizing the underlying assumptions that guide each approach.
Primary Issue #2: Boundaries Within Science and Theology
The second primary issue loks at the idea of boundaries within the field of science and theology. Fisher spends time examining the idea of naturalism, suggesting that an emphasis on rational and empiracal thought birthed by the enlightenment has inhibited helpful dialgogue between scientific and theological discourse. Rationalism requires truth to be universally constant and self evident, whereas transcendent theology is specific and revelatory by nature (and therefore somewhat transient). Fisher provides three primary reasons for the collapse of Naturalism as a governing worldview, which are circular and incoherent reasoning (a foundation requires reason, and reason requires a foundation, a reality that forces one to break their own rules in order to properly and effectively engage the scientific process), the presence of culturally influenced reasoning as opposed to universal truth (a failed attempt to link perception and reason), and the limitations of specific analytical techniques, which is seen in the idea that “if the supernatural is taken to be the reality distinct from the material creation, then a study of the regularities of the creaturely world will not necessarily even see supernatural reality”, doing away with such categories altogether. Fisher goes on suggest that “Biology can at best hint at something, theology can reveal.” Pannenberg sees the boundaries blurring as he attempts to link material history with a transcendent relationship to the divine. And while Pannenberg does not necessarily go this far in his argumentation, Fisher gives sharp focus to the dangers of dualism that can arise when one tries to fit the unique focus and claims of one discipline in to the claims of another. Fisher notes this in his critique of Pannenberg’s argument, and suggests that this limits (necessarily so) how science and theology can compliment each other from within definable boundaries, although it should not inhibit us from seeing the two world in cooperation.
Science can observe in humanity a rational soul, but in order to protect the science it keeps it at one level of process with the rest of nature. It does this because it is unable in and of itself to deal with the transcendental nature of humanity (found in this idea of revealed Truth). Rahner attempts to define “soul” in a way that can fit both theology and material definitions, but recognizes that both fields need to to work from within their own limitations in order to keep from unfairly undermining or superceding the other at the expense of truth. One of the key issues of rationalism is that it demands that both fields of thought speak from outside of their limitations if they are to contain relevant and coherent truths. This is where Fisher presents the idea of a critical anthropology that can acknowledge the limitations of each field while also holding them together in a cohesive fashion.
Fisher, speaking of a Copermica anthropological view, goes on writing,
Often this becomes the motivation for theology to seperate itself from science as incompatible. However, it is both important and necessary, according to Fisher, for theology as the study of transcendent truth to recognize how this truth fits with the corresponing reality of the material world that science studies and brings to light. It is possible to pursue a sense of compatibility while also staying true to the conviction that each discipline demands, and this flows from a dedication to the idea that meaning is not created but rather given, that we don’t arrive at meaning through a linear process of progressive ideals, but rather these ideals inform the processes by which we then evolve, both towards and against. Meaning in this sense is not wrapped up in the material process in as much as it is making sense of it from the perspective of transcendent, revealed truths and in some way operating as the measure that informs its now willfull direction in humanity and our subsequent responsibility towards it. Which is to say, culture and humanity and evolution changes, but what is True holds as constant as the laws that govern it, call it inately human, inately divine, or whatever. What we mean by these phrases is that which makes humanity significant. This resonsiblility to something that governs us from above is this same motivaiton that motivates all three writers with whom Rahner is dialoguing. Rahner recogonizes that seeing a directive nature and source in the created order is infact a theological concern and perspective that science has often borrowed in order to justify its existence. This is an important recognition, as it describes the limitation of both while also recognizing that spiritual reality by its nature is that which gives meaning and direction to the presence of human yearning, and therefore stands as a higher reality than human willfulness.
Another important sentiment that Fisher speaks to is the issue of respect. The influence of the Enlightenment has led to a disparity and seperation between the two groups (philosophy/theology and science). A mutual respect then must exist for healing to happen, in so far as transcendent beliefs and observations are allowed to speak with equal conviction and credibility as material study. A part of this argument suggests that both to a degree are observable on a rational level, but that both do need eachother in order to speak appropriately to that which stands beyond their boundaries.
Concluding Reflections and Thought
In reading through the articles interacting with Pannenberg, Rahner, and Zizioulas, it is easy to see how important and necessary this sort of dialogue is for our modern world and modern thought. The discussion reflects an attempt to bridge the historical, scientific, and transcendental reality as connected within both observation of the natural and material world and within human experience itself. In doing so, Pannenberg, for example, from within his historicity, appears to require transcendental reality in order to properly attend to his motivating concern for observable and testable data and events. The highest measure of this of course is the incarnation, that which then informs how one sees the material world in relationship to the divine revelation. There can of course be limitations to this approach, as there is in any field of study, which emerge when the material and the transcendental become so tightly bound that they become indistinguishable, but this should not negate the desire and the effort to allow these fields of study to operate together in a meaningful way. Perhaps its worth noting that the primary reason this tension exists is because acknowledging presuppostions and motivating assumptions is risky business. It leaves your field of study vulnerable, and where observation depends on certainty and consistency of laws this can lead to a feeling of confusion. Here it is worth positing that even in physics where certain laws must be assumed in order to study theories in a practical sense, the science itself leaves room for this to happen within a universe where laws are in fact largely inconsistent and uncertain. Both of these these things can co-exist. The risk that comes with employing and acknowledging necessary assumptions doesn’t need to mean something negative, and infact can be the primary way in which we strengthen both positions of faith and scientific measure.
In terms of theology, Rahner and Pannenberg come together on the idea of the incarnation as a preexisting reality, something Rahner articulates and fleshes out to a fuller degree as that which allows for the ongoing activity of revealed Truth within the material world. He views the process within the material world from the vantage point of the incarnation (the death and the resurrection), a transcendent reality that can only be seen and understood from wiithin the transcndent act itself. It is interesting to see an approach that respects the science while holding to faith in an unseen reality in a way that also embraces humility. Transcendence speaks to a higher reality because in Christ the mystery of God can hold precedence over human knowledge, even as human knowledge is elevated towards this endeavor of making sense of revealed truth. This can be true without undercutting the other precisely because one sits underneath informing motivation while the other is active and external in a lived and practical and material sense. Rahner also presents the idea that humans were elevated in terms of significance precisely so that the incarnational act could be played back out into the material world itself, something which science more or less embraces when it considers the study of human activity and function. Human significance moves us into a sense of continuity of purpose and meaning with the non-human world.
I found one of the more intriguing lines of thought in Zizioulas’ exploration of natural evil and his perspective of the fall. Zizioulas upholds a similar Christology and focus on the incarnation, but expands his view using the evolutionary framework as a way of examining how something like the fall, an idea that emerges from reflections on these dualing natures and observable relationships between order and disorder, relates to our understanding of ecclesiology (also understood as the future, for which the whole of society regardless of view employs a working narrative). Looking through the lens of the hypostatic union of the trinity, he moves forward on an understanding of personhood as that which is shaped within culture and community. The fall itself, which points to something preeixstant to itself, is any move away from the hypostatic union, which is what gives shape to human significance (again, something that is bolstered and observed by science). Zizioulsa falls short of fully fleshing out his concept of original sin, as questions still remain regarding where we locate this within history as a preexisting reality and how we frame this within a more holistic sense of humanity’s eventual reform (the new creation and good conquering evil). What’s particularly strong though about his view is that it leaves room for evil as an agency that is naturally found within a created order where existing tensions between good and evil seem to be necessary for anything that we deem to be good (working assumptions of imposed value) to emerge. This seems to free us from the weight that accompanies a fall from a “perfected” state, although it doesn’t necessarily preclude this altogether. What’s important in his theory is locating a primary and revealed Truth that can allow us to employ necessary assumptions about what is True while attending for the complicated material reality, and for him this is what Christ represents. Original sin in this sense is melded to natural theology, which allows the inherent and given goodnes of creation to be upheld within the evidence of the material function. We are made up of the ongoing struggle between good and evil.
The other dynamic at play is the idea of the relationship betwen humanity and the non-human creation. Human significance can only be elevated within this larger narrative of creation’s move towards something new and something good, both of which must be assumed and given to us by an other. This is where we find the idea of “response-able relationships, where the relationship between God and the natural world becomes the model through which we then see and relate to the natural world (as part of the natural world). This has direct implications for the the ethical and moral treatment of the natural and creaturely world. The seemingly neccesary move to establish humanity as a unique demonstration within the material and the transcendent is convincing and even hopeful, but as the book demonstrates, the end result of human significance is actually the strongest case that can be made for transcendent truths and values that govern the whole. Becoming aware of our nature makes us responsible to these truths, and participating in making these transcendent truths evident within the material world is how these truths are made aware.