Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Questing and arresting – part 3

Sister Elizabeth Johnson has a chapter in her book Quest for the Living God called “Creator Spirit in the Evolving World.” Like the other sisters I have met, she unequivocally embraces and celebrates the scientific story of creation, beginning with the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, up to and including the evolution of life and consciousness by natural selection. She sees no need for such ad hoc interventions as “intelligent design.”

She writes:
To sum up: ecological theology proposes that the Creator Spirit dwells at the heart of the natural world, graciously energizing its evolution from within, compassionately holding all creatures in their finitude and death, and drawing the world forward toward an unimaginable future. Throughout the vast sweep of cosmic and biological evolution, the Spirit embraces the material root of life and its endless new potential, empowering the cosmic process from within. The universe, in turn, is self-regulating and self-transcending, energized from the spiraling galaxies to the double helix of the DNA molecule by the dance of divine vivifying power.
Johnson even allows for chance and chaos in the universe’s unfolding. “We should not be surprised,” she writes, “to find divine creativity hovering very close to turbulence.”

Except for the splashes of anthropomorphic language, none of this is very far from how the religious naturalist understands the universe. And since all language is necessarily embedded in a human matrix, the only alternative to some measure of anthropomorphism may be silence, which is the preferred stance of the religious naturalist but does not lend itself to collective celebration.

One can understand why the bishops might be suspect of Johnson’s theology, especially with the idea that human self-consciousness might have arisen by natural processes, without reference to special creation. The bishops’ committee writes:
Although a scientific explanation of life in purely material terms already presents considerable difficulties that could be discussed, the crucial issue is that of self-consciousness. Simply put, human self-consciousness cannot be wholly explained as the result of material causes. The multiple neurons of the physical brain cannot account for the unitary self-consciousness of the human person. The functioning of the brain cannot of itself explain human acts of knowing and willing. This has been amply demonstrated by various philosophical arguments. There is therefore one stage in evolution that cannot be fully accounted for by scientific explanation, that of the appearance of self-conscious intelligence and free will.
Of course, the bishops don’t know any more about the origin of self-consciousness than I do, so they roll out that dowdy old God of the gaps. Give Johnson this: She has a grander and more comprehensive understanding of the vivifying presence of God in the world than do the bishops, who appear to be locked into the divine artificialism of pre-scientific thought.

But the bishops are not stupid. If human self-consciousness arises from natural, material processes, then this has obvious implications for the idea of personal immortality. And if the human self is not literally immortal in the traditional sense, then any claim by the bishops to possess “the keys to the Kingdom” is a hollow basis for authority.