There are many things Christians can learn from science – among them is how to think. In thought about the deeper matters of science (particle physics, mathematical theory, etc.), there are a number of accepted rules that are useful in theology as well. One of those is the requirement of “elegance” when constructing a plausible theory. It is understood within scientific and mathematical thought that what is true and accurate as explanation and theory should somehow be “elegant.” For example, there is a simple elegance in Einstein’s E=mc2. That something as universal as the relationship between matter and energy could be expressed in such a simple manner is indeed elegant. Doubtless there might be another manner to express this relationship, a more convoluted and complicated manner, but science would rule it out in favor of Einstein – elegance and simplicity are somehow more accurate as a description of reality. The continued search for a “unified field theory,” a theory that “explains everything,” is not a pipe-dream or figment of the scientific imagination. It is an instinct and understanding that reality is one, that it ultimately “makes sense,” and does so in a manner that can finally be understood and stated in an elegant manner.
There have been numerous theories throughout human history that gave an “account” of the world. Some of them were quite complex. I think of Ptolemy’s explanation of the movements of the planets, complete with “epicycles” injected into their overall movement to account for why planets sometimes seem to “move backwards.” Such movements, it turned out, were far more simply and elegantly explained once it was learned that the planets, like the earth, revolve around the sun. Their movements therefore appear different from those of the surrounding stars we see.
Christian theology, when done rightly and in a mature manner, has something of the same quality as good math and physics. Theology is, after all, speech or thought about the One God, and not about complexities and multiple theories. Christian theology is not, when rightly done, a collection of Trinitarian doctrine, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, moral theology, etc. Such compartmentalization of Christian doctrine is a holdover from medieval scholasticism, perhaps the lowest point in the history of Christian thought.
The Protestant Reformation, though seen by some as the beginning of the modern period, must also be seen as a development within Christian scholasticism. Both Luther and Calvin were products of the scholastic model and their theologies (and particularly those of their successors) reflect this historical reality. Thus there are within the Christian movements founded by the reformers, the fragmentation and compartmentalization of medieval thought. Though the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist have been fundamental realities of the Christian life since its beginning, many Christians can give no proper account for their significance. To say that they are “commandments” of Christ simply begs the question and leaves the sacraments as afterthoughts, Ptolemaic epicycles, glued to the surface of some scheme of justification, which is glued to Christology, which is glued to Trinity, all of them only lightly connected, even carrying within them mutual contradictions, held together only by some sense that they should all be there (perhaps because they are actually mentioned in the New Testament).
Such presentations of Christian thought lack elegance and simplicity. They present a confusing array of theories (complete with their own specialized jargon) but without unity or a proper sense of the unity of God and His relationship with His creation. It is little wonder that such fragmentation is often utterly powerless to answer the questions of the culture that surrounds it. A few isolated verses of Scripture are simply useless in the face of the “unified” theory of human sexuality and gender being offered by the modern world (to give but one example). A Christianity that cannot present a gospel that is, in fact, a truly complete world-view, is a neutered artifact, an antiquity that is both boring and sterile. It does not “preach.”
I embrace the traditional teaching of the Church on matters of gender and sexuality, but struggle to do so in a unified manner. Mere assertion of tradition is finally insufficient, a symptom of theology’s abandonment.
In the years that I have studied (and lived) Orthodox theology, among its most profound and enduring aspects is its inner unity. Orthodox theology is not a collection of thoughts – but rather a single thought which may been seen from various angles. In the centuries of the great councils, a common language of Trinity and Christology developed, such that we may speak of the Person of Christ (hypostasis) with regard to the Trinity, and the Person of Christ with regard to the Incarnation, using the same word, with the same word carrying the same meaning. Some refer to this as the “Neo-Chalcedonian” thought of the Cappadocian fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, etc.). It was the failure to embrace this completion of theological language that created the schism between the “Eastern” Orthodox and the “Oriental” Orthodox, the so-called “Monophysites.” The language of St. Cyril of Alexandria, championed by the Orientals, was correct in its place, but inadequate for the growing synthesis of expression that was giving a growing account of the fullness of the faith.
My experience has been that the whole of the Orthodox life, its theological expression, its understanding of moral activity, its sacraments and liturgy, are but one thing. I sometimes describe this one thing as union with God. It is certainly the only phrase I know that holds everything in its proper place and understanding. To stand within such a theological “structure,” is to be shielded from the fragmentation of the world and an undisciplined, scattered collection of doctrines. The One God is not readily perceived by a scattered mind, and is even more obscured if the theology of that scattered mind is itself a collection of discrete fragments.
It is in this context that I raise periodic objections to the penal substitution theory of the atonement. As epicycles go, it is a major gloss on the fabric of the Christian faith. When I read discussions of this theory I see a variety of fragmentations introduced. God’s holiness and its inability to endure sin; God’s justice and the necessity for equity; God’s mercy and love sometimes pictured as rivals of His holiness and justice. And all of these aspects of God stand divorced from the sacraments, Trinitarian thought, and other areas. Indeed penal substitution theory, at its worst, wreaks complete havoc on Trinitarian dogma. The Son is made subject to the Father’s wrath to such an extent (in some accounts) that He is utterly cut-off and separated from the Father. The Orthodox certainly confess that “One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh,” but in the same hymn declare, “Who without change didst become man and wast crucified, O Christ our God.” I was recently told by an Evangelical that the Incarnation represented a “change” in God (not to be confused, he said, with God’s immutability). It is just such compartmentalization that creates the confusion of much Protestant thought and occasionally absurd statements (similar sources have spoken to me about the beauty of hell and of the sinner’s condemnation).
The fragmented character of most non-Orthodox theology is a reflection of its poverty and the loss of a proper Christian vision. The unity and simplicity, even the intuition of the early fathers that such a unity should exist, are reflected in the Creeds and liturgies of the Church. St. Irenaeus of Lyon said, “Our doctrine agrees with the Eucharist and the Eucharist confirms our doctrine.” Such a statement makes no sense in the context of modern Christian thought.
Modern Christians attend Church, celebrate the Eucharist, are justified and are working on being sanctified. They think about various aspects of God. They are liberal or conservative, tough on sin or soft, Biblically-centered, or culturally sensitive. They are many things but never one thing. Thus when engaging them I have to ask, “Which of your gods are you now describing?”
God is One, and His creation is one. Good speech about either has this in mind. I have acquaintances who are “Young Earthers.” Unable to reconcile an old universe with the absence of evolution and literal readings of the Creation story, they build a box and a wall between themselves and much of modern science. They protect themselves by arguing, “It’s only a theory,” as though their various hermeneutical creations were somehow not theories and more reliable. But as theories go, theirs has little unity and is only a strange combination of confusing assertions.
True theology has no need to fear human science when it is done well. It does better to insist on elegance and simplicity and other hallmarks of the truth rather than to set forth medieval scholasticism of any sort. The world should, in turn, demand as much of Christians theologians.