Friday, May 17, 2013

All About Eve (and Adam)

When did I last treat myself to a precis of Barth's theology as a whole? Well, I'm doing so now, as I reread John Webster's superb short volume, Karl Barth. (A second edition was released in 2004, but I'm not sure what all changed in it from the original 2000 edition I own.)

One point that Webster drives home particularly well is that Barth is something of a trickster figure in modern theological discourse. That is to say, whenever a topic is up for examination -- be it revelation, the being and attributes of God, election, the "problem of evil", etc. -- Barth is often (usually) subverting one or more dominant paradigms of modern theological discourse. This feature helps make Barth's theology both bedeviling and intriguing.

Case in point: Barth's highly distinctive treatments of the doctrines of creation and anthropology in Church Dogmatics v. III. Barth resolutely refuses to interject modern cosmological and biological perspectives and scientific speculation about human origins at the center of doctrinal reconstructions. His treatment of these topics -- for example, his exposition of the Genesis creation "saga" (in CD III/1) -- is grounded in basic doctrinal claims centered in Christology, and he doesn't get mired in the ongoing (interminable) debates about human origins and evolutionary biology. Nor does try to retrieve ancient-medieval notions of causality as a Thomist might do. (Now that is a rather broad claim that would require loads of unpacking and defending. But I'll just pin it on Webster for now.)

I think Barth's moves here bothered me more than I realized when I was first seriously reading his stuff. You see, I have this cosmological itch. I was attracted to the natural sciences as a kid -- mathematics, not so much (so, of course, I pursued the humanities!). Remember when people thought the Space Shuttle was a good idea? And when Reagan wanted us to develop a special program to shoot down ICBMs? Yeah, that's when I grew up.

And another thing that was happening throughout my childhood was the major conservative turn in my native Southern Baptist Convention. One of the litmus tests of orthodoxy that emerged from this controversy -- as it had in the 1920s -- was whether a seminary prof, missionary, pastor or whomever affirmed the narratives in Genesis 1-2 as (essentially) historical. And you know what I'm not going to do right now? I'm not going to engage those debates here. But I gather that the issue is still (forever) a hot topic -- as one can see in all the books and articles stemming from the "historical Adam" debates. I don't read those books, but occasionally I do dip into Peter Enns' blog posts.

My point, again, is that I've always had this cosmological itch. When I first started studying Barth with some seriousness, I had just finished my master's thesis on Teilhard de Chardin. A thinker more opposite to Barth one can scarcely imagine -- and that applies especially in the area of cosmological speculation. So I suppose I had this (not fully conscious) desire to scratch that itch, but now with Barthian materials. Of course, Barth will have none of that.

So here I am. I can't get anyone to give me a straight answer about what the Higgs boson particle is. I've read (at a very basic level) about two possible cosmological scenarios for where our universe is headed, and I don't like either option. And though curious about all this stuff, I really question what Christian theology can offer up here -- Due apologies are rendered here to all the folks at the Zygon Center, all those at Claremont and the prestigious Templeton Foundation (which will never, never, never in a million years give any grant money for any research project someone like me would pursue). And Keith Ward too. And John Polkinghorne. And Wolfhart Pannenberg. And lots of other very smart thinkers.

My Teilhard books are boxed up in the closet (It was a compromise: My wife wanted me to sell them.) I don't really have anything to add to the religion and science discussion. So I read Barth instead.

When the Gifford committee tagged Barth to give a set of lectures on natural theology, his response was (I paraphrase) "You've got to be kidding me."

So when I get the cosmologo-evolutiono-anthropological itch and my head starts to swim, I just reach for the Psalter or take a walk on the bike path. Always good for what ails you.


  1. Once upon a time, when the universe was very young, and cooling from its initial uniform, symmetrical, and hot state, a strange thing happened. When the universe dropped below 100GeV, suddenly the nuclear force became short-range. We call this the electroweak transition, because it's the hypothetical moment when the strong electromagnetic force doesn't change, but the nuclear force does, becoming "weak" over distance. This happens because the bosons ("force carrier" quanta) for the nuclear force gain mass, unlike the bosons for the EM force, which we call photons. And the trick is that we knew about three of these: the W+, W-, and Z bosons of the nuclear force. But there's a fourth involved, or at least we knew there had to be, and the mechanism that predicts the particle is called the Higgs mechanism. The quantum of the Higgs field is the Higgs boson, and it "does" mass. It is bound up in the question of why the "weak" bosons have mass and are consequently limited to short-range interactions.

    Imagine a universe in which the nuclear force, as strong as it is in reality over short distances, were carried by massless bosons like the photon. Imagine a truly long-range "strong" nuclear force, and what the universe would look like because of it.

    The electroweak transition is responsible for the condensation of local matter separated by distance. Other transitions will happen that relate to this, but for the sake of argument it's worth calling this the key. It is the "snapping" of one of the fundamental symmetrical forces that would otherwise continue to hold everything together in reversible relationships. Mass means deeper ground states become available, and things fall into them and stay there. The Higgs mechanism is therefore responsible for the "clumping up" of the early universe, and the resulting existence of the baryonic matter that we think of as atoms and molecules and everything else in the catalog of leptons and fermions. And the Higgs boson is the quantum unit of that force. (Unless there's more than one, in which case that sentence should use plurals.)

    1. Goof: I obviously left out the gluons and the normal "strong" nuclear force. Blah.

  2. As a Barthian who has worked for the Zygon Center, I sympathize with you. My advisor is the director, and we do talk about the limitations of the Center's approach, and how one might do "religion and science" as a Barthian without compromising what makes Barth, Barth. My best early inroad to that was choosing Torrance over Pannenberg.

    And kudos for doing a thesis on PTdC. I can honestly say he's always rubbed me the wrong way—but some of that is that I simply don't have a mystical bone in my body. (The Zygon/IRAS folk love him, of course.) But I wouldn't say Barth denies one the ability to do cosmology. He certainly won't let you do it that way, and I think he's deeply skeptical about the relevance of speaking theologically about particle physics, but there's an advantage to be had from his willingness to let creation be what it is in the phenomena of its existence, without having to go all teleological on them. He is willing to let the penultimate be what it is, because it doesn't determine the ultimate. And, vice versa, the ultimate does not determine the penultimate. Barth's theological universe is one in which there is indefinite real scope for the freedom of the creature.

    I think, in religion and science dialogue, we don't know quite what to do with that "ease," that position of sitting lightly to the natural sciences while respecting them. But it is a definite contribution to the field!

  3. Matthew,
    1) Thanks for the primer on the Higgs boson. I will probably have to reread it a couple of times. But you do help me see why the discovery of such an entity would be exciting.
    2) You are indeed right to suggest that a nuanced attempt to integrate a cosmological interest with a Barthian theological framework should, in principle, be possible -- and that Barth himself leaves this option open. Memory fails me, but I think this issue comes up in III/3(?), where Barth affirms that cosmological frameworks -- which are inevitable anyway -- can have some utility within dogmatics. The main issue, I suppose, would be that these concepts/frameworks, would not properly function as foundational: That is, they would be used in an ad hoc fashion (as with general philosophical concepts) and governed by properly theological concerns. Barth's reticence to go there, as some have suggested, might be more a matter of his personal proclivities -- as he was personally much more interested in engaging politics and history than in the natural sciences. I think what you wrote about his general attitude toward creaturely freedom is right on target and well put. Tanner has helped me very much on this topic.
    3) Many of my blog posts are dashed off quickly and have a breezy tone. And I was too breezily dismissive of Teilhard. But I do take the challenge he represents seriously. Fifteen years ago, I would have thought his stuff was passe and process thought in general too. And now look at how hot all this stuff is. I'm not qualified to assess Teilhard's contributions to paleontology. He perhaps has something to say in the sphere of natural philosophy. But as for the theological aspects of his work, I have some deep reservations. Some of his ideas are deeply disturbing and I wish Christian readers were a bit more discriminating and careful with this stuff. The Whitehead/Hartshorne trajectory, though I disagree with it, seems more straightforward to me: The depth of the revisionism there is explicitly spelled out. I think it goes beyond his mysticism. Maybe I'll write something about it.

    1. I agree that Barth leaves no place for phenomenological cosmology as a ground of theology, and that it's reasonable to think that he doesn't ultimately prioritize getting to it any later than that because it's not his métier. Hunsinger on the phenomenology of the human is relevant here, because he does engage anthropology in ways he doesn't cosmology as a whole. But what he says very early on in either III.1 or III.2 about theology making use of worldviews while owing them nothing is, I think, very telling here. It might be worth dragging in a distinction between the real and the rational, or something similar.

      Also, I look forward to whatever you may write on Teilhard de Chardin and possibly also Process, if you do, because it sounds like you have something worthwhile to say. :)

  4. Hmm, process. It's been so long....But I have been rereading Gunton's Becoming and Being (the first part is on Hartshorne, the second on Barth), which I do recommend. I don't know if I can dialogue with the Teilhardians, given that I'm (now) coming from such a different set of commitments. But maybe at least a blog post or two, somewhere down the line.

    As for "a distinction between the real and the rational," I don't quite follow your meaning here. Would you care to elaborate -- or, if you would like to write at some more length about it, would you consider writing a guest post?

    1. My Adorno was showing. ;) Barth does talk in terms of theology as the task of understanding, coming out of the Anselm book. And about its truth value being dependent upon God taking up our speech. For me that always gets shaded in terms of our rationalization of the real. And our use of other worldviews then reminds me that "the false is the index of itself and what is true." And it's really all we have: false rationalizations, and the reality, and the gap between them. Our cosmological frameworks are rationalizations, even at the level of the Standard Model. They are the false that points itself out as such, in terms of its weaknesses, and thereby also points beyond itself to what is true. This is actually how we use them in the sciences! But our useful falsehoods in cosmology point beyond themselves to something that cannot be theologically foundational. The open question is the relation between these concepts and frameworks, and the properly theological ones that suffer from the same problem.