Saturday, November 22, 2008

Science and culture: God as an "unnecessary hypothesis?"

In "Theology After Newton", physicist Stephen M. Barr notes:
In Newtonian physics, change and movement were explained by the inertia of bodies and the forces bodies exert on each other. And since God is not a material body, many people thought that the new science had relegated him to the sidelines. At most, he was allowed to act in the distant past, as an all-foreseeing designer, a conception of God that Pannenberg criticizes as leading, on the one hand, to deism and, on the other hand, to a clash between predestination and human freedom. Even worse, the belief that took hold after Newton-that everything could be explained naturalistically, through physical forces and mathematical laws--seemed to make the existence of God an "unnecessary hypothesis," as Laplace put it. As theology lost its explanatory role, its assertions came to be seen as lacking empirical content and therefore as untestable.

Some theologians took refuge in fideism or a "flight to commitment," such as Karl Barth's "altogether unsecured obedience" to the Word of God. Others retreated to the position that theological language is "performative" rather than "informative." Yet others reduced the gospel to social action. The result has been a situation in which theology is marginalized and seen as largely irrelevant to life and thought. Society and its institutions grew secularized, and intellectual life did as well: the study of history and science undertaken without concern for a wider context of meaning. (First Things)
I've been known to call this "flight to commitment" by a ruder name: "aimless Jesus-hollering."