by Frederick Schmidt
Frederick W. Schmidt is the Reuben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL and blogs at Patheos.com.
Teaching undergraduates at an evangelical college taught me a lot about the culture in which we live. Whenever the creation stories in Genesis became a topic of conversation in the classroom, inevitably their significance for the creation debate became an issue as well.
Elsewhere, I have talked about what I really believe that the creation stories of Genesis One are all about (“Righting America” and at Patheos), so I won’t repeat those points here. But those classroom conversations also convinced me that the creation debate is mired in thoroughly materialistic categories.
Allow me to explain.
Those who believe that the origins of the universe are entirely natural make arguments for a universe without God that are materialist. That is not surprising. To argue that “behind the last natural process that we have identified and understood, there is yet another process to be identified and understood” is logically consistent with their position. Indeed, for them, giving primacy to what can be known with the senses and confirmed scientifically is the only sensible way to make the argument.
Now, of course, we should note that those arguments are often marked by an overreach that moves from true science to scientific rationalism. Science can describe the way a process unfolds; it often cannot account for the existence of the process itself.
Less consistent is the tendency of creationists to argue that “behind the last natural process that we have identified and understood is where we find God at work.” That argument was one that I heard time and again in the classroom, and elsewhere among creationist arguments.
If you believe that God is the creator of the universe, there is more than one problem with this way of thinking about creation.
For one, the logic of the argument is itself materialistic.
Deferring the question of divine initiative in creation to the end of their argument, the creationist supposes that if God is to be found anywhere, God is found just beyond the place where our knowing and our senses fail us. That logic surrenders far too much.
If God is ultimately the author of creation — by whatever means — then the means themselves are a product of God’s creative work. And our thinking on creation should not deny God that.
For another, the logic of the argument abandons a conviction that is thread through both the Jewish and Christian traditions: namely, that God is active in the world and in its history.
What sets the Jewish and Christian traditions apart from other religious traditions is the conviction that God, though transcendent, is also immanent – i.e., that God is wholly other and yet engaged with creation in all its aspects. In Genesis, the singular claims of that God are emphasized. In the covenant with Israel, that engagement is reasserted; with the incarnation, the Christian tradition gives new expression to the depth of that engagement.
The logic that asserts, “God can be found behind the last process that has been identified and understood” essentially treats God in deistic categories, arguing that God is involved in creation only after every materialist claim has been exhausted.
That approach creates a third problem: A God of the gaps or, more accurately, a God of the fringes, whose creation is bereft of any indication that God is its author or has claims on creation.
Another way of putting this, perhaps, is to say that criticisms one and two above have spiritual and moral consequences.
If the material world is void of God’s manifest presence and if God is transcendent, but not immanent, then the result is faith in a god who has no relevance for breathing souls.
We may “come from God” in some remote fashion, and we may return to God beyond the grave. But without the conviction that God is active in the world, spiritual and moral judgments fail to connect us with ourselves, with others, with the world around us, and with the moment in which we live.
It is not surprising, then, to find that the same religious atmosphere that argues for a god of the fringes is often accompanied by an understanding of the Christian life marked by the same disconnect. Thus, much of Protestant fundamentalism is given to what amounts to a two-part understanding of the Gospel: Part one, get saved and move your name from the column of “damned and going to hell” to the column marked, “saved and going to heaven.” Part two of that “Gospel” is, “Here is a set of rules to follow that will keep you from making a mess of part one.” In that kind of spiritual world, the integration of life with the journey into God and the integration of redemption with moral and spiritual formation is difficult if not impossible to achieve.
But that is the consequence of giving so much weight to a materialist’s view of the world.
One of the major assumptions of the materialists is that “matter is all that matters.” Alfred North Whitehead dealt with the hubris he saw in science decades ago. My interpretation of his view is this: the central ingredient in human life is a blip of visible and invisible reality that we seek to interpret as best we can. Like the individual frames of a movie our brain fills in the missing gap using the interpretive rules we have gathered from experience. An interpretive rule is that “when I see this, it means this” kind of mental act. These rules come from our use of three points on the continuum of knowing: reason, which is the deductive/inductive way of knowing, then intuition which is part emotion and part reason, as in “my gut tells me that he is not reliable.” and emotions, which is also a way of knowing, “even though I have never been here, I feel like I’m home.” If we nurture our souls through solitude then we can also see the invisible reality of life. We do not do a very good job in the church in teaching people how to nurture the soul so we can see the invisible part of reality. I believe that the term “spiritual but not religious” that young adults use to identify themselves is not about what they have, i.e. that they are spiritual, but what they would like to be but organized religion has not taught them to be. Note how our worship services do not contain any time for guided meditation or silence.
Ray, thank you for the thoughtful response. I agree. One of the things I point out to my students is that when the word, “spirituality,” made its reappearance in the larger American vocabulary, many people concluded that the church and its leadership had very little to offer, but “Oprah, Oprah talks about spirituality,” For that reason, while I am convinced that Christian spirituality is very different from that on offer among SBNRs, it is important for us to listen to them, if we hope to understand their complaint about America’s churches. Per your observation, I think it is also true that we need to talk in a more forthright fashion about spiritual perception — what it is, what it entails, and how to cultivate it. But until the church’s leaders and pastors are willing to cultivate that capacity in their own lives, people will continue to look elsewhere, even if, as you observe, they have little to go on but inchoate dissatisfaction with the church.