DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Theory of Everything…really?

Written by: on February 26, 2015

The movie The Theory of Everything is an inspirational story about Stephen Hawking’s life and is rich in juxtapositions. One such juxtaposition is the development and growth of Hawking’s mind and thinking as he body rapidly weakened. Another is Hawking’s rational, mathematical view of the universe contrasted with his deep passion for music, his family, and his friends.  But it was the reading of Taylor that came to mind as I watched this movie, as Hawking seems to represent the quintessential rational scientific scholar who was very comfortable with a universe void of transcendence, where a simple mathematic equation would suffice to explain everything. In a penultimate moment in the movie, Hawking’s exclusive humanism is very present when he looks at his three children frolicking in the garden and states to his wife: “Isn’t it wonderful what we created!” According to Hawking, humanities greatest achievement is not procreation (though pretty spectacular), or the wonders of love and relationships, or even the beauty of music and creation itself. But man’s greatest achievement is the ability to determine mathematically how everything came to be.

So, what is a person of faith to do in the face of these disenchanted, exclusively humanistic and rational challenges? The second half of Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age[1] provides helpful insights on how to think about those who so passionately promote a buffered way of thinking, including the likes of Hawking, Hitchen, and Dawkins. Here, Taylor is most helpful in guiding us through the modern challenges to faith. What Taylor suggests is that secular thinking is a “take”–and not necessary the final word on–reality.

What modern rationalist are simply giving us is their take on how things might be. And their particular viewpoint comes from a very “closed” or confined perspective. It is “their spin” on how things are according to their unenhanced, buffered frame of reference. Since their particular take on the universe is seen as battling superstition, the evils perpetuated by religion, and even God himself, they are seen as brave and courageous. Claiming to rest their conclusions on scientific and rational foundations, they exude a confidence, believing that they alone are right. The irony here, as Taylor points out, is our modern day academics and intellectuals, who espouse the importance of openness to all evidence as necessary for good science, tend to be the least tolerant, the most closed to information that doesn’t fit into their closed framework. This results in a smugness and arrogance. However, Taylor suggests that these intellectuals lack the understanding that their perspective is only “a take,” a story that they have come to believe and put their faith in. It is goes beyond given facts (and in fact, evidence becomes much less important than the story), but it is their story that provides form for their “take” on life and the world, and it provides their a self-image (as courageous and pioneering) that feeds their arrogance and their intolerance for any other story.

This kind of over-zealous confidence and smugness I found often in Christopher Hitchen’s debates over the years. His world was black and white. Anything to do with God, spirituality, the church, and Christianity was bad (even Mother Teresa was on his hit list!). In his debates, there was little discussion concerning facts, history, or opposing viewpoints. Because the transcendent didn’t fit into his closed, disenchanted, and rational world, it was not worthy of consideration. Hitchen writes off religion and God without discussion, believing religion to be responsible for all the bad that happened throughout history. For Hitchen, God was the culprit who sought to denude humans of their autonomy and authority, and, for the humanist Hitchen, was the worse of all evils. Evidently, Hitchen had it all figured out. His closed world was neat and orderly, and he had total confidence in his conclusions and the rightness of his stance. However, this resulted in his extreme intolerance and frequent ridicule of any other point-of-view. He was a fundamentalist in his secularism, suggesting that his “reading is obvious, compelling, allowing of no cavil or demurral.” (551) Taylor rightly calls Hitchen’s approach “conversation stoppers: I have a three-line argument which shows that your position is absurd or impossible or totally immoral.”[2] (121) In short, there is no discussion allowed. For this reason, I’ve given up on listen to Hitchin’s debates as they tend to nasty diatribes rather than honest and open conversations.

What Taylor helps us understand is that Hitchen (and other intellectuals) are merely expressing their “take” or spin. They really are no different from anyone else who has ideas of “how things really are,” except that others might not be so verbose or confident in their conclusions. If one holds their viewpoint with the humility to admit they don’t have all the answers, they then provide space to share differences and dialogue. Here is the difference: They make room for conversation. Taylor suggests a large portion of society today in this latter group, people who are open, maybe even doubting, yet still hoping that there is something more than their small, cold and calculated universe and short life-span. The Hitchens and Dawkins of the world may be loud, but they don’t necessarily speak for every one.

Modern secular society has given the New Atheist and exclusive humanist the space to voice their ideas, but we need not buy into their particular take on universe, on humanity or their conclusions about life. What is undeniable is that the vast majority of our world today has not bought their spin, and there are strong influences that continue pull and provide tension in the hearts and minds of people. Little hints of this are found everywhere, as non-religious people still seek to have weddings or funerals in churches, and have their children dedicated; natural and national disasters find people turning to prayer; and, in personal illness and suffering, people still turn to the clergy and the church. It suggests that there are alternative stories, not so neat or mathematically calculated stories, suggesting that in the midst of cold and empty universe, there is something that can’t be explained, that somehow gives meaning and purpose, and provides a sense of belonging, that leave people to wonder. Or as Smith suggests: “We’re all trying to make sense of where are, even why we are, and its not easy for any of us.” (Smith, 120)

[1]Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2007).

[2]James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2014).

 

About the Author

mm

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

12 responses to “The Theory of Everything…really?”

  1. mm Deve Persad says:

    You always provide a lot consider in your writings, John. Certainly, we are inundated with all kinds of “takes” and “spins” which don’t allow for dialogue or discussion. Therefore, I appreciate your observation: “If one holds their viewpoint with the humility to admit they don’t have all the answers, they then provide space to share differences and dialogue. Here is the difference: They make room for conversation.” The need for a posture of humility that leaves space for conversation to welcome and engage even the divergent viewpoints of others is much needed in our culture. How are you best able to provide that space, particularly with those who oppose you?

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Deve, you ask the best questions!!
      I believe it is very simple to find space. It requires 1) a genuine interest and engagement of others ideas (take them seriously), and 2) it requires genuine humility – the true scientist is always open and seeking, never totally satisfied with her conclusions…so admitting incomplete understanding or possible need for correction is a good place to allow real conversations to start. (This applies to most things in life! I am sure you know much of this already!)
      Thanks Deve!

  2. John…
    Such.a.good.post. You wrote, “What is undeniable is that the vast majority of our world today has not bought their spin, and there are strong influences that continue pull and provide tension in the hearts and minds of people.” I notice this too even in my area of the country – the Pacific Northwest, were the largest “religious” group is the one that declares itself as “unaffiliated” (Oregon 38%; Washington 33%). There seems to be “something” that is expressing itself — yearning for response.

    One of the challenges (or is it opportunity) is to dialog, invest in relationship and not necessarily “win” an argument or prove or disprove God’s existence. To take such a posture I wonder if this does not invite us to be more secure in our faith – in who God is even, as Taylor writes near the end of the book, we will never fully know God. Really good work. Thanks…

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Carol, that is a wonderful insight about “unaffiliated” as the largest religious group. I think your point is spot on, I do think a humble posture does require a stronger faith — as faith is “hoping/being assured of what we do NOT see.” We can’t explain what we do not see, so it puts us in less of a defensive stance. Further, it saves us from doing God’s job – I think God can defend Himself pretty well…so we don’t necessity have feel like we have to fight for Him to the bitter end. (This book has really stirred my thinking in so many ways.) Thanks Carol!

  3. Michael Badriaki says:

    John, great post as I thoroughly enjoyed reading from the beginning to the end. Your goes down as a fit conclusion of the Taylor reading series. I have not read march of Stephen Hawkings’ work and certainly haven’t watched the movie which I am now going to watch thanks to you. 🙂 But I have listened to Hitchins debates and read Dawkins and you are right, they have an “over-zealous confidence and smugness …” which for me is not the way lead anybody.

    I believe that the Church as been called to be salt and light and that believers can be rest assured that there is no force too powerful for God. The anti-supernational and anti-God voice and very few and the church need not be destructed by them from preach the total gospel of Jesus Christ. He is the one who redeems people. I liked what you wrote, ““What is undeniable is that the vast majority of our world today has not bought their spin, and there are strong influences that continue pull and provide tension in the hearts and minds of people.”

    God is still in the business of saving souls!

    Thank you, again great piece.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Amen, Michael. My thoughts exactly! I think it is good for us remember that God can and will defend His own glory – that we simply need to be a good example of His presence — and not the judge and jury of world. As always, I appreciate your kind and insightful thoughts!

  4. John,

    This is a brilliant and helpful post. Thanks for sharing! You say here, “Evidently, Hitchen had it all figured out. His closed world was neat and orderly, and he had total confidence in his conclusions and the rightness of his stance. However, this resulted in his extreme intolerance and frequent ridicule of any other point-of-view. He was a fundamentalist in his secularism…”

    I see this attitude so often, especially since I work in higher education. The truth is that nobody has it “all figured out.” This needs to be remembered. If we know everything, then we evidently have nothing else to learn. What a horrible existence! I think that fundamentalist evangelicals do this too sometimes. If we say we have all the answers then we are also missing the point. Certainly we know some things, but we do not know a all things. If we did, then we would be God. And that would be pretty messy. For me, I am glad I know what I know and I am glad for what I don’t know as well. I must make room for mystery; if I don’t I am of all men most miserable.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Yes, Bill, exactly! I think it is good especially for the Christian to realize that he/she doesn’t have it all figure out either…to hold to the wonderful mystery that allows God to be bigger then my little mind or life can conceive. Great insights, Bill!

  5. Russ Pierson says:

    John, this is great! Working at a public institution of higher education, I often speak with colleagues–from various faith communities or no faith at all–about the dangers of “fundamentalism”. And as you point out so well, using Hitchens as the model, it is entirely possible to be “a fundamentalist in your secularism”.

    You point to creating an environment I like to call “a safe place for dangerous conversations” that leave room for the exchange of ideas, for honest feelings, for valuing mystery and recognizing uncertainty. It’s such a contrast from those “conversation stoppers” you cite. I think it is essential that we as believers embrace the reality of that James K.A. Smith quote you end with, “We’re all trying to make sense of where are, even why we are, and its not easy for any of us.” In these days as our “immanent frames” become increasingly “porous” and society craves re-enchantment, we do well to humbly and courageously engage the world in which we find ourselves.

    Nicely-done!

    Russ

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Russ, I love that – “A safe place for dangerous conversations!” Fantastic way of putting it! It is truly sad that for Christians that we create protected places that squelch any conversations! That is way I like Taylor’s approach because we see a way forward, that we need not fear having those dangerous conversations…and to see that often the “intellectuals” also circle the wagons and squelch real conversation as well! Looking forward to chatting with you!

  6. mm rhbaker275 says:

    John,
    You really have a good grasp of Taylor and the secular world.

    Both of your posts on Taylor are illuminating and insightful. I feel a compulsion to one day come back to Taylor, indeed as Jason stated in our chat, “This is a reference text that will take years to digest … You cannot talk about the secular in academic life/worlds without knowing about this book.” I hope you take this as a complement, John, you do not write like a “philosopher.” Your writing seems to come from my world! I did go back to Taylor and looked up your citations; some I even had highlighted, but I did not see the concepts you brought out.

    One of the things I do is I maintain a file on every book we read (partially in anticipation of reading assignment that will be due to Jason in summer term) in hopes of one day returning for additional study. I copy post like yours and keep them in my file.

    I see in Taylor the opportunity to better gasp the post-modern shift we are presently experiencing. As you note, “there are alternative stories;” no one great (meta) narrative states all there is concerning the world/creation in which we live. The buffered intellectual’s “spin” or “take” precludes possible alternate narratives, as you so able write. This “telling and listening” is an essential element of postmodern thinking. You quote James K.A. Smith at this point which is helpful and illuminating. Concerning Taylor’s defense of open, un-buffered thinking, Smith asks an interesting (and very post-modern) questions, “Could unapologetic ‘witnessing’ also involve attentive ‘listening’”? (119). Smith goes on to summarize Taylor’s apologetics:
    First, level the playing field (for example, by pointing out that both exclusive humanism and Christianity face dilemmas);
    Second, show some of the inadequacy of purely “immanentist” accounts, opening space for a Christian account to receive a hearing;
    Third, sketch how a Christian “take” might offer a more nuanced or more comprehensive account of our experience (a phenomenological strategy).

    Smith clarifies Taylor further as he notes that Taylor’s “starting point doesn’t preclude shared conversation in the cross-pressured space of the secular. But neither does that preclude participants from making a case for their ‘take.’”

    Thanks, John, great post.

  7. mm John Woodward says:

    Ron, thanks for your encouraging words. I take it as a high compliment that I don’t write like a philosopher – I think we are in the same boat here. I love to read and expand my mind – but I find I am often lost when I try reading some guys who are “intellectuals you should know.” I don’t ever want to be one of those frustrating guys. So, for me (having done ministry for a long time), if it doesn’t apply to real life and isn’t down to earth (freshman college level), it isn’t helpful. Taylor seems right no the verge of being too intellectual – but often he seems pretty down to earth…he goes in and out. I love his stuff, and like you, I hope to get back to him again and again…one day I will make it all the way through this huge tome! Thanks for all your encouragement, Ron! You are a blessing!

Leave a Reply to Deve Persad Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *