Monday, May 18, 2009

A Christian Positioning System: Navigating by Faith and Reason

From the Gettysburg PO
by Michael L. Cooper-White, Seminary President

A greenback I’ve saved for several years now was defaced by some prior possessor, who crossed out “God” on the dollar bill’s backside and wrote in “reason.” “In reason we trust,” was this anonymous (and perhaps agnostic or atheist?) spender’s creed.

Theological debates over the appropriate boundaries of faith and reason date back centuries, and are associated with the names of some of the great thinkers of earlier times. Often the debates are cast in either/or dichotomies. One either trusts reason, scientific facts and the laws of physics OR one places faith in a Divine power and doesn’t worry much about the reasonableness of conclusions reached. These debates have not lessened in intensity across the centuries.

Today’s contentious struggles over the teaching of evolution vs. “creationism” or “intelligent design,” for example, continue unabated. Often the polarized parties talk past one another and do not really enter into deep dialogue that just might alter perspectives all around.
Lest we raise our eyebrows over “those other folks” engaged in tension-filled faith/reason discussions and even diatribes, it must be acknowledged we “mainliners” have our own squabbles, which often degenerate rapidly into name-calling and other unchristian behaviors. As the ELCA prepares for important decisions related to human sexuality and ethical conduct—first in synod assemblies and then at the Minneapolis Churchwide Assembly in August—one hears and reads a variety of statements. Sadly, some assert that those who come to different conclusions are not just wrong, but unchristianly wrong in their convictions. Some are convinced that the Bible is unequivocal about how we must steward our sexuality; others see ambiguities and conflicting scriptural “vectors” that point one in various directions, with considerable need for reasoned communal discernment.

Surely, people of faith must heed Jesus’ mandate that we not be conformed to commonplace convictions that appear entirely reasonable. Clinging to faith convictions, perhaps especially in times like the present, is not altogether reasonable. The resurrection of a crucified dead man cannot be proven by the regular rules of science, which among other things demand repeatability and external verification. Regardless of one’s conclusions on the timing of the original creation (whether in six 24-hour days as we know them or through prolonged eons of prehistoric periods), is it reasonable to cling to promises of a New Creation that God holds in store at the end of time as we measure it now?

Luther and other theologians have suggested (wisely in my judgment) that the faith-reason dialectic is just that—a pulsating rhythm back and forth on a spectrum whose opposite ends may not be all that far apart. If a good God created the universe, as we confess in our creeds, would such a loving Creator stack the deck in unreasonable and indecipherable ways so as to cause us human ones to always be in a state of confused chaos? On the other hand, wouldn’t the one who surprised the whole creation on Easter morn not be holding some cards yet to play that we cannot begin to imagine and must anticipate in faith?

To determine a precise location and reliably chart a course toward an intended destination, Global Positioning systems must locate and receive signals from at least 3 different satellites orbiting high in outer space. The great “catholic” tradition claims that revelation comes to us through the Scripture (Word of God) as we embrace the Bible and broad Christian tradition with reason in communal discernment. By means of receiving and reading signals sent to us from the Bible, backed up by the wisdom of the ages and our best reasoning, however stormy the current environment, we can navigate our way toward a faithful future.

While I will be attending several Region 8 synod assemblies, I’m eager to hear reports from others far and near on what transpires, and how you find the “state of the church” in your corner. Would you send along some brief reflections?