TOPOLOGY OF THEOLOGY

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At least since the Enlightenment, Westerners have been looking at the world in a very particular way. We have successively become Empiricists, Materialists, Pragmatists and Positivists; in a word, Scientists.

Although now largely discredited among professional philosophers, the mantra of the Logical Positivists nine decades ago has become what passes for commonsense today for most of us:

“A proposition has meaning (and therefore a potential truth value) only to the extent that it can be verified by Scientific Method.”

A more contemporary rendering goes like this: “If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.”

With these maxims now almost universally accepted as ‘self-evident truths’, it is easy to understand why alternative visions of reality seem, well, ‘crazy’…and gain little traction. And that is a problem for Theology, at least in its Western incarnation, because Theology treats subjects, processes and entities which by definition cannot be measured.

Does that mean that such subjects are not fit topics for exploration? Does it mean that such processes and entities are not ‘real’? To the modern sensibility, the answer to such questions is simply, “Yes!”

Even among folks who try to maintain some sort of religious faith against this backdrop of universal Positivism, there is a tendency to run away from doctrines that seem to challenge the accepted world view. Instead, there is a persistent effort to ‘translate’ the deep truths of Theology into the ordinary language of the modern world.

When that effort comes up short, the final resort is to take refuge in ‘magic’: things just are the way they are, our job is simply to believe, not to understand, or God forbid, explain. It is easy to see why such a world view would have little popularity, especially among the young.

Science in general and the Scientific Method in particular are among the greatest accomplishments of human civilization. True to their Pragmatist roots, they have enabled us to ‘conquer nature’ to a very substantial extent. While this conquest, like all others, is rife with ‘collateral damage’, there is little doubt that it has enabled billons of people to live materially richer lives than would otherwise have been possible.

The mistake is not believing in Science; the mistake is believing that Science is all there is, that Science offers the only constructive view of the world, the only domain with truth value.

The contrary notion that ontology and phenomenology (forerunners of Theology and Science) could offer alternative but equally valid views of reality dates back to the founder of Western philosophy, Parmenides. In this great epic poem, On Nature, he described the world in two absolutely contradictory ways:

  • The Way of Truth: the underlying structure of things.
  • The Way of Appearance: the everyday, empirical world.

It is clear that Parmenides valued both the philosophical insights contained in the Way of Truth and the scientific discoveries contained in the Way of Appearance. So much so that Karl Popper called Parmenides the ‘father of science’.

We have lost Parmenides’ 2500 year old insight. We have forgotten that there can be more than one true paradigm through which to view the world. As a result, for all our material progress, our lives are immeasurably poorer.

In our time, Theology has been driven to the very margins of the intellectual world. If Theology is not to become a lost treasure, it must find a way to uncover its fundamental structure and explain that structure to an understandably skeptical audience.

Although critically challenged by General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Black Hole Cosmology, the scientific world view is implicitly founded on the notion of spatiotemporal reality. The structure of the scientific experiment assumes a distinction between cause and effect, then a connection between cause and effect and finally a sequential relationship between cause and effect. If a proposed ‘effect’ precedes its proposed ‘cause’, or is simultaneous with that cause, then by definition we do not have a valid experiment. (Lie quiet Mr. Feynman.)

Western theology, on the other hand, views the spacetime ordering of events as distinctly secondary to what I’ll call the ‘hierarchic’ ordering of events. While the life of the Trinity is totally dynamic, the process that constitutes that life does not take place in time nor does it have temporal ‘moments’. The pure process that is God occurs entirely outside of spacetime. It is timeless, eternal. From the perspective of a temporal moment, the entire process that is God is instantaneous. The ‘moments’ that constitute the life of the Trinity are hierarchic, not temporal.

Consider three of the most central doctrines of Christian theology: Creation, Incarnation and Redemption (aka Second Coming, Salvation, Kingdom of Heaven, Parousia, Eschaton; each of these terms has a different meaning but ultimately they all refer to a single reality: “…that God may be all in all.”)

According to the spatiotemporal timeline, Creation is point zero, roughly akin to ‘Big Bang’; Incarnation refers to the birth and life of Jesus, the Christ; and Redemption (or Eschaton), well, that’s loosely connected with ultimate fate of the universe, still uncertain but now thought likely to be ‘Big Chill’ (heat death).

From the spatiotemporal perspective, Creation and Eschaton constitute the bookends of the cosmic timeline while Incarnation occurs somewhere along that timeline. And from a certain perspective this is true. But this is not the way Theology sees it. Creation, Incarnation and Eschaton happen eternally; they are atemporal ‘moments’ in the Trinitarian process that is God.

In fact, from the perspective of Christian theology, a world would never be possible and would never have been possible without the perpetual presence of all three (Creation, Incarnation and Eschaton). Without Creation, Incarnation and Eschaton, no Big Bang, no Big Chill; without Creation, Incarnation and Eschaton, no Now! Eschaton is not just something that is coming to be; it is something that already is…and already was at the moment of Creation. Same for Incarnation!

Think of Being as an old sock. By itself, it is just a sock. It has a beautifully smooth, patterned exterior but no interior at all…as far as we can tell. At least we have no information about that interior…and in that case it lies outside our universe. But, fortunately for us, this is an eternally dynamic sock! The sock (God) is perpetually turning itself inside out, and when it does so, its interior becomes apparent, and therefore real. This is Creation (Fiat Lux!).

Now look again, more closely! The interior of the sock is not at all like the exterior; it is not beautifully smooth. On the contrary it is lumpy and knotted and apparently chaotic. (No wonder it’s usually kept hidden.) Notice something else as well: what was formerly the interior of the sock now contains within it what was formerly the exterior. This is Incarnation (God made man, i.e. an historical quantum in the historical world). The outside has become the inside; the whole has become the part.

But we’re not done yet. The perpetual process of turning inside-out now becomes the perpetual process of turning outside-in. The sock returns to its initial state…but something has changed. Once again, we can only see the beautifully smooth exterior but now we have information about the inside of the sock so that inside is now just as real to us as the outside. Like one of Picasso’s vases, we can now see inside and outside simultaneously.

In fact, we can now see that the smooth exterior of the sock is patterned by and fully incorporates the rough interior. We see that the exterior and the interior are in fact just one sock. This is Redemption, the Eschaton, when we realize that God (the sock) is all in all.

The sock, of course, is only an analogy, something taken from ordinary experience to help us understand something very extraordinary indeed. But there are a few key points we need to take away from this demonstration:

  • The process that is the life of God is atemporal, eternal.
  • The ‘moments’ that make up that process are not temporal moments but architectural moments; they tell us about the structure of God, not his ‘evolution’.
  • All the moments that make up the life of God are coincident with one another and with every single event in the historical world. From a theological perspective, the timeline of history is more like a Mobius strip. What is spread out in time is coincident in eternity. But as with a Mobius strip, the arrow of Creation is inverted at the Incarnation and reverted at the Eschaton.
  • Just as spatiotemporal ordering has no meaning in the context of God, neither do the ordinary rules of logic and geometry.

This last point needs elaboration. In the world of ordinary experience, if A ≠ B and if A is a proper subset (element) of B then B cannot be a proper subset (element) of A. Stated geometrically, if A contains B then B cannot contain A. But these ‘laws’ do not hold where God is concerned. It is just as true to say the God contains the world (Creation) as it is to say that the world contains God (Incarnation), as it is to say the God and the world contain each other (Eschaton). The logic of eternity is decidedly non-commutative.

This is where pantheism goes astray. God is everywhere and in everything…but that is NOT the same as saying that God IS everything. God and the world are eternally distinct but eternally co-dependent.

This is very different from the Sunday school narrative. According to that account, God decided to create the world. Man transgressed God’s law so God decided to send his Son to redeem the world. The Son decided to accept crucifixion and by that act redeemed the fallen world. Crucifixion was quickly followed by Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost (the sending of the Holy Spirit) and not quite so quickly by the Second Coming.

What’s wrong with this account? Nothing! It accounts for the key phenomena of Western theology; it links all the data points. But it does so in a way that robs the story of its radical uniqueness. It anthropomorphizes God and translates God’s story into a spatiotemporal framework. No wonder it’s supplied the script for so many great movies! The problem with this is not theological; it’s pedagogical. Told this way, the story appears so contrived that few find it an appealing model for what they perceive to be reality.

The concept of ‘decision’, for example, does a poor job of representing the will of God. In fact, God always wills Good; that’s who he is essentially…and eternally. The Good which God wills will be manifested in the world in innumerably many specific ways but God’s primordial ‘decision’ is hardwired.

Also, we know that Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and even Eucharist are all really foretastes of the Eschaton; but the historical presentation of these events make them seem more like aftershocks of Incarnation. It is one thing for Eucharist to bind us to the Last Supper; but how much more thrilling is it to know that Eucharist also binds us to the Eschaton, the Glorified Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven!

Return to the early texts of the nascent church, texts like the Gospel of John, the letters of Paul to Corinthians and to Colossians, the Book of Revelation. The authors of these documents made absolutely no effort to ‘translate’ the Christian message. They presented an outrageously bizarre view of the world. But that view, that way of understanding reality, addressed a fundamental human longing for an account of reality that rings true, that lets the Way of Truth shine through the Way of Appearance. Against all odds, this vision swept through the Western world like wild fire, felling the Roman Empire itself and changing Western society for millennia to come. We need to recapture that spirit today!