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The Only Question That Matters

I’m still mulling over some of the excellent lectures I heard last week at Regent College’s Pastors Conference on Science and Faith. One lecture, in particular, focused on the “new atheists” (who are increasingly becoming, well, not new) and their often simplistic misunderstandings of the scope of science, the relationship between science and faith and the roles both play in our consideration and adoption of world-views (incidentally, I noticed today that David Bentley Hart has another wonderfully entertaining and insightful critique of the new atheism up over at First Things). The basic idea in the lecture (delivered by Denis Alexander) was familiar enough: just because science can explain one level of reality very well, it is not thereby equipped to explain or even suited to address every level of reality. All that was very good, if relatively standard stuff.

But discussions about science and faith can, if we’re not careful, get rather sterile. Sometimes we can work very hard to reconcile two different intellectual systems or ways of looking at the world, but then if/when we achieve some kind of harmony or reconciliation we step back and wonder what, exactly, we have accomplished. Suppose, say, that we are convinced that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob really is somehow immanently involved in the creation and ongoing unfolding of the created order. Suppose we arrive at this conclusion. What then? What, precisely, have we pulled off? Analyzing the world around us and coming to the conclusion “God did it” is satisfying, on one level, but it’s hardly enough. Much deeper and more troubling questions remain.

I was reminded of this while reading one of Frederick Buechner’s sermons this morning. As usual, Buechner has a great way of getting to the existential heart of the matter. This is from a sermon called “In the Beginning” in The Magnificent Defeat:

To put it another way, unless there is some very real sense in which the Spirit of God moves over the dark and chaotic waters of this age, these deeps of yours and mine; unless God speaks his light- and live-giving word to me, then I do not really care much one way or the other whether he set the whole show spinning x billion years ago. Unless I have some real experience of it myself, then even if someone could prove to me objectively and verifiably that it all happened just as Genesis declares, I would be tempted to answer him with the two most devastating words in the English language: so what?

Is new life stirring in this death-ridden world? Is light about to be created out of our darkness? This is the only question that matters.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. The Buechner does not leave room for the possibility that God does not exist.

    This is where the real science vs religion debates rages. Yes, often, the debate is one of much unneeded hostility. Within each party the debate also rages. Dawkins and Gould are really good examples in the science community. The Buechner quote seems to skirt around this issues, because when properly realized, the ‘what’ becomes very significant.

    May 12, 2010
    • What issue do you think Buechner is avoiding? What is the “what,” properly realized?

      May 13, 2010
  2. Ken #

    I think Buechner does fairly state the important emphasis within Christianity.

    As I read the writings of naturalists (not Dawkins and the religion haters, but nature writers) I think there is something like this emphasis, even though the theism is left out. Certainly the words would be different, but where hope is found in naturalism, I think there is anticipation of something yet to come and that an appreciation for what is past and how we came to be where we are.

    Peace with Dawkins is unlikely. Peace with nature writers, even though they do not believe in God, is possible, even for one who does.

    May 12, 2010
    • I’m not sure I understand how the nature writers’ emphasis mirrors Buechner’s. I’m certainly no naturalist, but isn’t entropy kind of the only long-term option on the horizon on a thoroughly naturalistic worldview? Where does the “something yet to come” come from, on a naturalistic worldview?

      May 13, 2010
      • Ken #

        I think the something yet to come in nature writing is often associated with the possibilities associated with chance and necessity. I think the writers look with wonder at life and the universe and from its wondrous past imagine a wondrous future.

        What I am writing here is a kind of literary observation rather than one involving science or philosophy or theology.

        BTW, yesterday I hiked deep into Grand Canyon. Today I am hiking in Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona. A local hiking book says that although God created Grand Canyon, he lives in Sedona. So I am planning to check that out! (Arizona has inspired many nature writers, including Joseph Wood Krutch, who lived near Tucson. I hear the “something yet to come” theme in his writing.)

        May 14, 2010
      • Let me know if you find God in Sedona :).

        May 14, 2010
      • Ken #

        Well, Sedona was a big let down. The natural landscape is beautiful but it has been terribly marred by development. God has left home.

        May 15, 2010
  3. Thanks for the lovely Buechner quote. He always has good things to say. And it’s nice to see your son back in the pic at the top. I missed him.

    I appreciate hope and humor, or rather, elegantly Anglicized humour, but I’m unclear on one thing. What exactly is an eschatological goodie?

    Just curious. Peace to you.

    May 15, 2010
    • Yes, I had a number of people from various places remark about the picture (or its absence) so I decided to bring it back. My son told me he likes it, too, so I guess that was the clincher :).

      Re: “eschatological goodies,” one of my professors at Regent College (John Stackhouse) used the term during a systematic theology course and a bunch of us thought it was pretty funny. I barely remember the context—something about what some of the features of the new world God would bring about might be. It came after a long list—”x, y, z, and other ‘eschatological goodies.” I guess I just use the term as a quirky designation for the future-oriented nature of a lot of what I write about.

      May 15, 2010

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