Fall 2015 Advanced Seminar – Student Voices – Brian Johnson

In the Fall 2015 Advanced Seminar for Religion and Science, we asked our students if they would share their thoughts on the various lectures of our series on Teleology.

Our featured writer for this post is Brian Johnson from Valparaiso University, who reflects on the lecture “God in Process, World in Process: Constructive Theology and the New Engagement with the Sciences” presented by Dr. Phillip Clayton on November 9, 2015.


The Dance of Science and Religion

Brian T. Johnson

For those who remember, and for those who wish to forget, a dance in the junior high years conjures up one of two images: either you imagine everyone seated or standing alone, rimming the perimeter of a paper streamer and balloon decorated gym, or you see in your mind’s eye the boys and girls pointing at each other, whispering why they would never dance with “one of them.” Isolated or mutually separated, the great divide begins to resolve itself at some future date, yet even later, rigid categories and rituals of appropriateness seem to dictate much of the relationships that form. So it is with science and religion, a case that Philip Clayton makes in his book, Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action, published by Fortress Press in 2008. Usually, science and religion stand apart, believing they exist in separate domains with their own truths, or they engage with each other only by discussing how they are different and exclusive bearers of truth but stop there, unable to go any further.

Now imagine a meeting between a ballerina and a hip-hop artist, who have been lured to engage with one another in a pas de deux, a dance for two. Unlikely partners they may seem at first glance, once the music begins, and with a willingness to risk by improvising and discovering new moves, a dance begins to emerge, and each is transformed in some startling and profound ways. So it is, according to Clayton, with the engagement between science and religion. When each are lured in dialogue utilizing the vocabulary of philosophy and a willingness to engage in a common search for truth and discovering common truth where it is found, new ground can be broken and new thinking can occur.

Clayton warns that anxiety may also accompany this new endeavor and likens the task to constructing a life raft unmoored in the middle of the ocean. Without the stabilizing presence of agreed upon limits (the shore), science and religion proponents must finally create a discursive community, where a new systematic construction is proposed, with a symmetry between the partners, finding out in the process where agreement can be determined and differences defined.

Drawing on ideas of emergence (the notion that a more complex system arises from simpler system which may exhibit some or none of its properties) coupled with open panentheism (the notion that God is in everything and yet also transcendent), Clayton devises a new dance floor with new music (philosophy’s theories of identity and phenomenology).   In this new context, kenosis (the theological notion of self-emptying) creates a potential space for ideas to spring forth. Specifically, the notion of God’s action in the world becomes a creative place for a new way of being and believing.

Adventures in the Spirit is a comprehensive guide directing readers toward an envisioned dialogue, where mutual transformation is also a possibility. Clayton believes that the prophetic calling to engage with reason anew will allow for an integration not only between science and religion, but also between differing religious and cultural traditions, between faiths and politics, between polarized conservative and liberal theologies, and at the individual level, between one’s corporate beliefs and one’s individual practice. This would represent a radically new incarnational theology, the kind of thinking that a polarizing and absolutizing world often eschews. Facing disparate issues like climate change or radicalized religious conflict, Clayton comes with a tempered but hopeful alternative. He is calling all of the world peoples with their beliefs and practices along with entirety of scientific thought and academic knowledge to engage in a new adventure of the spirit. Attending to sacred writings, churchly tradition, human experience and reason in an egalitarian manner, without privileging one category of thought over the other breaks new ground. For the sake of the future, his evolutionary proposals are indeed revolutionary. For the sake of the world, I encourage you to join in this dance.

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