Thursday, August 24, 2006

Has Spirituality changed since Newton?

This is something I wrote whilst training at Westcott, posted for historical
interest - see also my comments at the end, in case you think I'm losing my

In this essay I shall be arguing that spirituality has indeed changed since the time of Newton and that, whilst spirituality is an inherently dynamic
activity, the changes involved are such as to question the very viability of Christian spirituality. I will begin by outlining the understanding of
spirituality that I will be using in this paper and examining the impact that Newton's thought had. I will then broaden the scope of my inquiry to talk about the wider changes inaugurated by the scientific revolution (of which Newton is the prime representative), before considering the possibility of a Christian spirituality today. My conclusion will be that a Christian spirituality is possible, but that it is one which has significant differences from its precursors within the tradition.

The definition of spirituality that I will be using is one given by Philip Sheldrake in his Spirituality and Theology: 'Spirituality is the whole of human
life viewed in terms of a conscious relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, through the indwelling of the Spirit and within the community of believers' .
Whilst spirituality is something that is difficult to pin down, this definition puts the relationship with God in Christ at the centre of spirituality for the
Christian, and that concern with relationship will be my main consideration here.

In early Christian thought the relationship of the believer to God had the following characteristics . Firstly it was (inevitably) highly Christocentric in focus; secondly it was eschatological, in that believers felt that they were living in the end times; thirdly it was ascetical, in that it concentrated on a development of the virtues; fourthly it was liturgical in that the spirituality was embodied, above all in the Eucharist; and finally it was a communal
activity, in that it was not a way of life that could be experienced by an individual on their own, but only by sharing a common life with others. By the time of the Reformation period this form had undergone massive development in different directions, becoming part of the common cultural fabric of each nation in the West: Christendom. With the wars of religion, however, Christendom began to collapse, and this was the milieu into which Newton was born in 1642.

Isaac Newton was quite possibly the greatest scientist ever to have lived, even though some two-thirds of his writings were not on scientific topics. He was born in Lincolnshire and studied in Cambridge where he was appointed the Lucasian professor of mathematics in 1669. His magnum opus, the Principia Mathematica was published in 1687, and has been described by Stephen Hawking as 'probably the most important single work to have been published in the natural sciences'. Newton died in 1727. He was responsible for four major developments in our understanding of the natural world. Firstly in optics, he showed that white light could be split into the different parts of the spectrum; secondly he invented the calculus (independently of Liebniz) which he used to investigate nature through mathematical analysis; thirdly he proposed three laws of motion to account for the movement of objects in space; and finally he developed his theory of gravitation which offered a universal account of the way in which matter interacts.

Newton was recognised as a genius within his lifetime, and his influence was widespread; that influence had a malign effect upon Christian spirituality
in three main ways:
a) Firstly in Newton's world-view there is absolute space and absolute time within which the laws of physics operate. As Angela Tilby has described it, 'Space and Time now had an absolute status which were linked to God. They provided the boundaries to the universe and ensure its rational character.' Although there was an unambiguous role for God within the Newtonian system, that God was of a very distinct character, and the consequences for religious life have been significant. As spirituality is concerned primarily with the relationship between believer and God the change in the understanding of God that followed from Newton's theories had definite spiritual consequences. The role of God within the Newtonian system was primarily to be that of a creator of a system; and that system, whilst it may sometimes need adjustments, could essentially be left to develop on its own. This conception led to the development of deism, the idea that God had created the world but was no longer directly involved in it, and is a direct consequence of Newton's own Unitarian beliefs.

b) Secondly, the mathematisation of our understanding of the world, particularly through the laws of motion and gravitation, meant that the universe was understood in a predominantly mechanical fashion. This had the consequence of undermining belief in human freedom, for which there was no room within the system: the universe was both wholly material (which undermined belief in the soul, amongst other things) and deterministic. This view also had the corollary of emphasising the role of law in human life, which ultimately led to the great nineteenth century conflicts between science and religion .

c) Finally, a particular effect of this conception was to move the understanding of miracles even further away from the 'signs' of, for example, John's gospel, towards an 'intervention' account, ie that God intervenes within the world to change the course of events. These developments worked to undermine the central Christian claim concerning Jesus' divinity, and, in the long run, were significant factors in the rise of atheism.
However, it would be wrong to lay the responsibility for the rise of atheism (and the undermining of Christian spirituality) entirely at Newton's feet. Newton, whilst undoubtedly a genius, was a product of his time, and there were deeper changes going on than can be brought out by the focus on this one man. If we therefore take Newton to be the symbol of an age, and ask whether spirituality has changed since that time, then we can begin to see the much more important developments that have happened.

Newton's mathematisation of the world, which he moved forward massively with his development and use of the calculus, was something that was first developed by Descartes . Indeed, Book 2 of Newton's Principia was devoted to a detailed examination of Descartes' own theories of planetary motion. This method stems from Descartes own use of formal analysis in the fields of geometry, meteorology and optics, and was a part of the Cartesian search for certainty in the scholastic category of scientia , which has become modern science. This search for certainty was itself religiously motivated, in that Descartes was horrified by the violence of the thirty years war and wished to establish a way of obtaining knowledge that was open to independent justification . While Newton took forward the application of Cartesian method in the scientific sphere, its application in the sphere of religious belief was taken forward by John Locke who argued that the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence. Beliefs must, in either case, be shown to have a rational foundation. A major consequence of this development was the rejection of authority in matters of religious belief, which undermined both the institutions of the church and most visibly the ancien régime in France. It also led directly to the emergence of fundamentalism, in both science and religion.

Whilst the above is a very rapid survey of the changes that took place in Newton's time it is clear that the consequences for spirituality are very great. I would like to pick out two things in particular. The first is the rejection of authority, and the consequent autonomy of individual opinion. The second is the confidence in human reason as a means to understand the world, with the various consequences that have gone with it. These two elements together can be looked at as characteristic of the scientific mentality, of which Newton was a prime example, and it is this scientific spirit that has had the greatest impact on spirituality. I wish to look at three areas: first, the way our view of the world has been changed, secondly, the way in which traditional forms of Christianity have been undermined, and thirdly the way in which contemporary culture has taken over many of the forms of religious practice.

A different world
It would not be an exaggeration to say that we live in a different world to that of the first Christians. The Ancient view of the universe had the earth at the centre of a Ptolemaic system, with hell beneath the earth and the heavens above. In this environment it made sense, for example, to speak of Jesus rising into heaven or descending into hell. More importantly, there was no sense of radical division between the world and God: God was continually active within the world and this was not something that was seen as a violation, it was simply the way that things were. This understanding is deeply foreign to our post-scientific world view. To begin with, the earth is no longer seen as the centre of the universe. It is seen instead as being a predominantly unremarkable satellite of an average star in the corner of one galaxy in the midst of myriad more. Our sense of the sheer scale of space has changed drastically. In addition, our sense of time has changed. Instead of the earth having existed for some few thousand years, starting from a divine creation, and of which there are records within the Bible, instead the Earth has existed for some four billion years, and the universe itself for some 15 billion years. What is more, not only has the earth existed for this length of time, but there has been life on earth, of the most exotic kinds, for many millions of years, and this life has been punctuated periodically by mass extinctions. The fact that there exists the species homo sapiens is a massive accident (albeit one that, given the scale of the universe, might be described as inevitable). Beyond even this, our geographical and archeological investigations have shown that the Christian religion is highly culturally conditioned, and the advent of historical criticism of the Biblical texts has shown the evolution of belief in Jesus as the Christ. In sum, the traditional Christian claims concerning the uniqueness, centrality and divinity of Jesus have been deconstructed. In the form that they have existed, from c.100AD through to c.1750 AD, they are no longer tenable. In what way can Christian spirituality persist today?

The previous paragraph has described the impact of the scientific mentality on what could be called the 'scaffolding' of Christian belief. The answer to the question above might therefore be one that distinguishes the form of Christian belief from the content. In other words, rather as contemporary non-realists do, one might argue that beliefs about the physical universe, or the time that life has existed on earth, are secondary to the practice of faith. The Christian life consists in a certain way of living, a certain way of relating to God which is then embodied in particular practices. While our understanding of God will change as the result of these developments the essence of the faith can be maintained. This answer is open to a number of objections, both in terms of its underestimation of the impact that these developments have, and also its assumption that Christian faith can be 'privatised' in this way, but most problematically of all, it ignores the way in which the internal practise of faith has been radically challenged by the scientific mentality, through the development of, in particular, modern medicine and psychology.

Central to the traditional sense of Christian spirituality are the notions of sin, grace and salvation, and implicit within these is the notion of guilt. The impact of the practices of psychotherapy (and also Nietszche) have completely changed our understanding of these personal experiences, such that this new understanding of sin and guilt 'entails a new view of the God who judges and punishes, the God who saves and has mercy, the God from whom we beg pity and pardon, and whose goodness and grace we sing'. The overwhelming sense of personal inadequacy that was experienced by, for example, Luther is not something that would be experienced in the same way today. Whilst it may be true, as Jung implied, that ultimately all psychotherapeutic problems are resolved by spiritual means, it is also the case that the overwhelming sense of personal worthlessness that Luther worked through would now be first considered a case for therapy and then possibly psychiatric intervention. (This is not to say that this practice is correct, only that this is the way in which these problems are viewed). In a similar fashion our attitudes to the closest and most typically human experiences, for example of our sexual life or the fact of our eventual death have changed completely in the light of the scientific mentality. Whereas it might be claimed that this is a distorted expression of Christianity, in practice the dominant impression of Christian thought has been that sexuality is inferior to celibacy, and the monastic life was held as the ideal. This Stoic conception is now rightly held to be pathological. In a similar fashion, the understanding of death has been altered out of recognition by the impact of modern medicine and the increase in longevity that it has brought about (at least in the rich countries of the West). Whereas it used to be a universal experience that childbirth was inherently fraught with risk, such that the risk of death for the infant in the first five years of life was roughly 50%. As Pohier writes: 'Because it primarily affected children and young adults, death necessarily seemed to be an accident, a brutal, unjust and unnatural break with life.' Whereas now, the death of a child or young person is experienced as something which is in principle avoidable, and such deaths lead to the reaction that something has gone wrong. Furthermore, as more people live to the 'natural' end of their lives, the fact of death itself is now seen as an inevitable part of the human life cycle, one that is to be welcomed in its proper place. Thanks to evolutionary studies we now understand that our form of life would itself not be possible without death.

More than anything else, however, the practice of prayer, particularly intercessionary prayer, within contemporary Christianity is under siege. Whereas it may once have made sense in both physical and moral terms to pray for a particular event to happen, it is no longer morally credible that there is a particular divine response to prayer that has an effect other than on the person praying. Or, to put it another way, an interventionist theodicy is not possible after Auschwitz. As Ivan Karamazov puts it, 'What good can hell do if they have already been tortured to death?…We cannot afford to pay so much for admission'.

The undermining of the Christian world view
We can see, therefore, that the impact of the scientific mentality is profound, both in terms of the framework of beliefs and the way in which our lives are experienced. I would like to develop this point by looking at particular elements of Christian spirituality, in three of the five areas outlined at the beginning of this essay:
  1. The understanding of Jesus: if we look at the traditional understanding of Jesus then it becomes clear that this perception has irrevocably broken down. What John Robinson called the 'traditional orthodox supernaturalism', which saw Jesus as a divine emissary, is no longer acceptable, as much on theological grounds as on an acceptance of scientific developments . To claim that Jesus was the Son of God begs many more questions than it answers - what do you mean by God? What do you mean by Son of God? Is it the same as what Jesus meant? (And did he in fact use the term?) Whilst a cogent case may be made for seeing Jesus as divine the way that this is understood is a significant step from, eg, 'He took our flesh and our flesh became God, since it is united with God and forms a single entity with him…Here below he is without a father; on high he is without a mother' . Beyond this, the understanding of Jesus' resurrection changes with our understanding of death: in what way does death need to be conquered if it is seen as a necessary and beneficial element of creation? As Pohier points out, throughout the history of Christianity, belief in the resurrection has often functioned to suppress a pathological fear of death. If nothing else, the popular forms of devotion to Jesus are incompatible with a contemporary Western cast of mind.
  2. It is indisputable that early Christianity was formed within an eschatological framework that accepted an imminent end to the world. Whilst the crisis of this non-event was surmounted as Christianity developed, its presence still erupts occasionally with outbreaks of millenarianism, and in the practices of cults such as Jehovah's Witnesses. Furthermore, it is clear that this had a profound effect on Christian teaching (eg Paul on marriage) which cannot simply be removed without consequence from the practice of the faith. Although the expectation of an imminent end to the world has been 'indefinitely postponed' the greater awareness we have of geological time makes the notion of a God that would act in such a way massively problematic, and this also has consequences for Christian teaching. If we don't expect God to act in this way with us, does this give us greater freedom within the world? What becomes of the notion of judgment? And even if such a God did act in this way, is it a conception of God that we can love (ie find in any way morally admirable)?
  3. As hinted at above, the practice of early Christianity focused on living in a particular way, particularly given an eschatological horizon, but even once this had been surpassed the dominant conception of Christian virtue (ascetical practices) requires overhaul. If we focus on the monastic vows (poverty, chastity and obedience) which were held to be exemplary for the Christian, then each can now be broken down. In a world where each purchase has direct economic and political consequences the vow of poverty is a refusal to be engaged in the struggles of the world (one might even describe it as anti-incarnational) and is a letting go of individual responsibility. This might be thought a good thing for the spiritual development of the individual (and certainly possessive materialism needs to be countered) but to leave the world to the big battalions of the military-industrial complexes and to leave the broad mass of humanity embedded in structural sin is not a straightforwardly positive act. Questions of sexuality were treated earlier, suffice to say that whilst a true calling to celibacy can be a genuine gift from God, the idea that we are called to renounce our sexuality (with the historical consequence that it becomes a source of shame) in the name of Christ is a pathology (and is also un-Biblical). Finally, the question of obedience is again not something that can simply be embraced as virtuous. Whilst it is true that the vow of obedience allows for the exercise of the individual conscience, while releasing the person concerned from worries about too many worldly matters (and serving to combat the sin of pride), in the aftermath of Nüremberg one must question the mentality that makes this sort of vow desirable. Whilst it can be made to be something that enhances the Christian life this ceding of authority runs counter to the democratic spirit which emphasises individual responsibility: obedience per se is no longer possible as a virtue.
Substitutes for Christianity
According to 'The Independent': 'The real priests of the future are scientists, as they have been since the Industrial Revolution' . Whilst such a comment shows an absurd ignorance of the nature of priesthood it does point up the widespread way in which the clothing of religious truth has been usurped by the scientific establishment. This has gone so far that Paul Davies is able to claim that 'In my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion'. According to Richard Dawkins, 'Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence…Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer… We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man?' . The way in which scientists have begun to usurp the traditional role of the church in terms of being a bearer of transcendent values is something that has been exposed quite well by Mary Midgley. These scientists are attempting to clothe their work with some of the lustre of religious truth, purveying the message that in science it is possible to find salvation. Certainly some of the best of scientific writing does work to satisfy the 'Immortal Longings' that we have as human beings, in that it allows a sense of something beyond our immediate understanding, but when it does so it is operating at the level of metaphysics, not science. Contemporary Christians therefore live in a world in which there is a dominant culture claiming to provide many of the traditional Christian benefits, eg salvation and relationship with the divine.

Another fundamental way in which the culture has changed is in terms of the competition for attention, and the way in which that attention is fixed. For example, in medieval times a high mass would have been radically distinct from normal life: instead of being in cramped conditions, you would be in a place of space and light; instead of being surrounded by foul odours there would be incense; instead of cacophony there would be sacred music. All of this would have enhanced the experience of worship as being a way of connecting with God. In contrast, in the contemporary world, the situation is reversed: in the world there is uplifting architecture, in church you are cramped and cold; in the world there is a variety of entertainment and stimulation of high and developing quality, in a church there is obscure amateurism; in the world there are a thousand sources of inspiration, in the church there are often none; in the world, especially, there is an acceptance and celebration of the body (eg in dancing) whereas the church is a remarkably disembodied experience. The way in which people experience cultural events has changed drastically, and consequently, even if, for example, a eucharistic liturgy faithfully follows the pattern laid down by history, the way in which it is experienced is markedly different. The same words and actions now have a different meaning, for the context is different.

The practical consequence of this for Christian spirituality is that we are returned to a pagan culture, but a pagan culture which is in many ways superior to the spiritual experience of Christianity, and one in which (it is believed that) Christianity has been tried and found wanting. In my concluding remarks I would like to offer a few brief comments about the way in which a viable Christianity can be proclaimed in such an environment.

The possibility of kerygma after Newton
At the heart of Christian spirituality is the relationship between the faithful and a God revealed in Jesus Christ. We have seen that our understanding of all the parties to that relationship has changed: ourselves, our God and the person of Jesus himself. In such a context it is inevitable that the relationship will need to express itself in new forms. It seems to me that there is a possibility of proclaiming the gospel in this new situation (it does, after all, bear many resemblances to the situation that the early church found itself in) but that the proclamation will have to begin by letting go of some cherished elements. The following are some suggested lines of development:
a) Firstly a focus on Jesus as one who reveals the nature of God. This should not be expressed in the terms conditioned by Jewish history and Greek metaphysics, ie to claim that Jesus is the Son of God, as that situates the kerygma in an abandoned cultural context, but perhaps a re-interpretation of Logos theology, concentrating on Jesus as the purpose of God revealed in human form, would be more easily digestible today.

b) Secondly, the liturgical practice of the Eucharist, in which we meet the character of Jesus and absorb his teaching, is essential, once we can rid it of the metaphysical and cultic baggage that has accrued to it in the last thousand years .

c) Thirdly, the autonomy of modern human culture, and the extent of control possible to it, needs to be recognised and affirmed theologically (and therefore given direction). Whilst there is still scope for a doctrine of divine judgment we do not live in an environment where it makes sense (either theologically or scientifically) to expect divine action to resolve our problems. I think that this is a corollary of both the 'dominion' bestowed in Genesis 1 and also our adoption as children of God (see Romans 8 and 1 John).

d) Finally, the concentration on orthodoxy (radical or otherwise), so prevalent within Christianity thanks to (amongst other things) the nature of the papacy and the rise of evangelical fundamentalism, needs to be countered by a lived emphasis upon the nature of Christianity as a way of life, which has certain results. As Wittgenstein put it: 'Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.'
In this essay I have tried to make as strong a case as possible for the changes that have taken place since Newton, and indicate the effect that they have had on spirituality. Primarily that effect has been a corrosive one - the form and content of Christian faith have been changed irrevocably by the scientific revolution. However, there is a clear distinction between the historical practice of Christian faith and the claims of the Christian gospel, and I am confident that the creation still waits with eager longing for the glorious liberty of the children of god.

Bibliography of works cited
Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition, Ignatius Press, 1985
Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, New City, 1993
Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, Penguin, 1990
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd Ed, OUP 1989
Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Penguin Classics, 1958
Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life, Penguin, 1989
Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation, Routledge, 1992
Catherine Pickstock, After Writing, Blackwell, 1998
Jaques Pohier, God in Fragments, SCM, 1985
John Robinson, Honest to God, SCM, 1963
Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998
Angela Tilby, Science and the Soul, SPCK, 1992
Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis, University of Chicago Press, 1990
Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, Darton Longman and Todd, 1979
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Blackwell, 1980
Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, Cambridge University Press, 1996


There is a lot in this essay that I would now renounce - it is striking a) how far I have come, and b) how the depression I was experiencing at the time (January 1999) comes through in what I wrote (maybe only I can hear it). I was very influenced by Jacques Pohier, whom I read then - and eventually moved away from. What now comes to mind is how trapped in a Modernist frame of reference I was - particularly with regard to eschatology and the supernatural. Another post on that to follow shortly.

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