MARS HILL AUDIO Journal
Guests on Volume 139: W. Bradford Littlejohn, on post-Reformation debates about the meaning of freedom; Simon Oliver, on how the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is a doctrine about God (and not just the origin of the universe); Matthew Levering, on the necessity of God’s wisdom in the doctrine of creation; Esther Lightcap Meek, on Michael Polanyi’s case that making contact with reality is a process of discovery; Paul Tyson, on resisting our modern assumptions about knowledge in favor of knowledge that is grounded in wonder; and David Fagerberg, on acquiring a liturgical posture in everyday life.
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W. Bradford Littlejohn, on post-Reformation debates about the meaning of freedom and how they differ from today’s discussions about freedom
“The problem that we have now . . . is that we have this idea of ‘freedom of religion,’ but nobody can say why. Why is freedom of religion a good thing?”
On this opening segment of the Journal, Brad Littlejohn distinguishes between our modern conception of freedom as “freedom of action” and the sixteenth-century Reformers’ understanding of freedom as “freedom of belief.” The issue at hand for the Reformers was how this newly-defined freedom of belief affected the capacity of civil authorities to enforce civil order and to encourage virtuous citizens.
Simon Oliver, on how the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is a doctrine about God (and not just the origin of the universe)
“It’s not that God and creatures share in common this thing called ‘being’ and God just has it to an infinite degree whereas ‘Simon Oliver only has it to a finite degree’ — that we share the same kind of being — . . . It’s rather that God has being in its infinite fullness and I exist by sharing in that.”
In this interview, theologian Simon Oliver clarifies some of the basic features of the early church doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Oliver summarizes fundamental concepts such as the being of God and God as final cause, divine freedom, divine sovereignty, and divine power. Oliver emphasizes that the doctrine of creation is foremost a doctrine about God and, following from that, a doctrine about how creation relates to God. Contrary to modern debates concerning origins, the doctrine of creation is not “a doctrine about the mechanics of how God got creation working.” Such an account fails to adequately preserve the distinction between God and creation, making God into a very large thing alongside a lot of other smaller things.
Matthew Levering, on the doctrine of divine ideas as foundational to the doctrine of creation
“Contemporary theologians tend to begin with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, but really the truth is, if God doesn’t know what he’s creating, then we’re all in a big mess. Imagine a creator who doesn’t know what he’s creating! . . . It’d be a little bit like the crazy scientist in the sky who hardly knows what’s coming out of the petri dish.”
In this next interview about creation, theologian Matthew Levering points out that what is often missing from the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is an adequate understanding of God’s wisdom and knowledge. Known as the “doctrine of divine ideas,” God’s wisdom in his creative act answers the question of whether or not God knows what he is creating. However, “knowledge” in this sense, should not be conflated with capricious power (i.e. the capacity for God to know whatever he wants whenever he wants). Rather, in the doctrine of divine ideas, God’s knowledge is an ecstatic act of “self-presencing,” such that we can say with St. Augustine that God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.
Esther Lightcap Meek, on Michael Polanyi’s case that making contact with reality is a process of discovery
“I think [Polanyi’s] clear . . . that knowing and, you could say, ‘truth’ and ‘grasp of reality,’ is traditioned and is a matter of growing expertise and connoisseurship and apprenticeship . . . But then, the neat thing is that in accepting that rootedness in the tradition, that’s when you’re able to contact reality.”
On part II of the Journal, philosopher Esther Meek joins us to discuss the realism of philosopher and chemist, Michael Polanyi and Polanyi’s belief that our understanding of reality shapes our understanding of knowledge. For Polanyi, reality is full of meaning and intelligibility that precedes our perception of it. In fact, it is something that we already participate in and, to some extent, know “subsidiarily.” This knowledge is something that is developed and acquired in tradition and passed along through generations. For Polanyi, knowledge that is anchored in an intelligible reality is what enables the scientist to achieve discovery through a process facilitated both by intuition and imagination.
Paul Tyson, on resisting our modern assumptions about knowledge and replacing them with the assumption that knowledge is grounded in wonder
“The kind of crisis that Jesus produced is very hard for us to think about if all we’re thinking of is, kind of, an ‘altar call.’ . . . In an altar call context everybody kind of knows what’s going on, but this sort of radical challenge to the very foundations of life as we know it, that’s the kind of crisis that produces the possibility of metanoia . . . and I think we have the same problem today in this area of the relationship between knowledge and belief.”
Philosopher Paul Tyson wants to help his readers identify the “wallpaper assumptions” of modernity that prevent us from following Christ as fully as we should. One prevailing example is the way in which modernity has positioned science and technology in relation to theology, such that the terms of science are believed to have superseded the functions and terms of faith. However, when we realize that our default modes of thinking and seeing the world may not have always been assumed or accepted, we are then freed to “think the impossible.”
David Fagerberg, on how a false dualism between the sacred and the profane affects our ability to consistently live out our faith
“I am trying to always move between the subterranean aquifer — this great ocean of grace — which then pops up on the surface in artesian wells that are our liturgical expressions. For me that is a movement between the sacred and the profane.”
One feature of modernity is to oppose the sacred and the profane, resulting in stark divisions between the meaning in liturgical religious practices and the meaning in secular daily life. However, in his diptych project On Liturgical Asceticism and Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology, theologian David Fagerberg bridges this divide, arguing instead that the sacred and profane exist in a liminal relationship elucidated through the liturgy. Liturgical expressions are the world circumscribed for us to do “extraordinary” things, to learn how “to do the world,” argues Fagerberg, the way the world was meant to be done.