Science, Worship, and an “Epistemology of Love”

Note: This is part of a series of pieces providing a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.

So far we have seen that a modern scientific worldview has difficulty accounting for the immaterial “essence” of human personhood, and therefore cannot meaningfully balance the risks of physical and spiritual harms. In this installment, we compare “scientific” ways of knowing (epistemology) with other means of knowing that are just as important for human life and purpose: knowing through love, and knowing through ritual. Knowing truth about God and ourselves by these means gives us purpose and hope.

Epistemology of Love

Materialism is not the only worldview that is capable of admitting scientific method within its epistemology. The Christian worldview accepts that God has structured the world in ways that we can seek to understand through systematic inquiry. But the Christian worldview also accepts that other epistemological bases for knowledge are possible, and even necessary. This is not a case of “faith” filling in the gaps of knowledge, but rather: faith, hope and love as a basis for true knowledge. Corporate worship is one means by which God allows us to know about Himself, ourselves, and the world. Discursive communication is only one dimension of this knowledge; God also makes Himself known to us “in the breaking of the bread” (cf. Lk 24:35) and through fellowship with one another.

N. T. Wright has offered this comparison. If one were to ask the question: (1) “Can a scientist believe in the resurrection?” which sort of epistemology is being invoked—the kind that is necessary to answer the question, (2) “Can a scientist believe that the sun will rise twice tomorrow?” or the kind that could inform the question, (3) “Can a scientist believe that her husband loves her?”[1] Questions (2) and (3) call for different modes of knowing, but both modes are based in past observation. Question (2) calls for a scientific epistemology, based in a belief that the natural world behaves in a regular way, such that we can extrapolate from past observation quite reliably to say that the sun will “rise” only once each day. A scientist could believe that the sun will rise twice tomorrow, but then she would be a bad scientist. To answer Question (3), the knower must also extrapolate from past experience of her husband telling her that he loves her, and also doing the sorts of things that loving husbands do for their wives. The husband’s love has no doubt been imperfect; and, it is within the realm of possibility that her husband has been faking it all along, and may betray her tomorrow. But the longer their history together, the more confirmed that love becomes through word and deed, such that the person may say with genuine knowledge that her spouse loves her.

Question (1) is actually two parts: can a scientist believe that Jesus’s bodily resurrection is a historical event that actually occurred in the first century; and, can a scientist believe in a future resurrection. Wright is just one of several who in recent years have made the case through the lens of critical realism that Jesus’s bodily resurrection is historically plausible, and even the best explanation for the historical evidence.[2] Wright goes further, however, in arguing persuasively an epistemology of love underlies the critical realism that leads us to true, actionable knowledge of the past[3]—including knowledge of the things that God has done in the world (most significantly, Jesus’s bodily resurrection). In this epistemology, love is revealed through God’s actions in the world—Wright specifically highlights creation, cosmic temple, Sabbath, and the image-bearing vocation—and love is necessary to truly know the world and the God who created it (and us). As we, with openness to God’s love (an openness that God himself provies) learn about God’s actions in the world, then Jesus’s resurrection and our own resurrection as part of new creation become not merely plausible, but inevitable, to us. This “knowing through love” is not opposed to reason, but rather is “the larger framework within which both reason and subjectivity can play their appropriate roles.”[4]

Knowledge Through Ritual

Within this epistemic framework, Christian ritual becomes a means of receiving and establishing true, actionable knowledge about God, ourselves, and our world. A scientist can really know that her husband loves her because he and they engage in performative rituals together that confirm the words they spoke in their wedding vows: they spend time together; they do household chores together; they make love; they demonstrate loyalty to one another through times of adversity. God’s relationship to his people is likewise presented in scripture as a marriage (Hos 1–3; Ezek 16; Eph 5:25–33; Rev 19:9), and his love for his people is enacted in ritual as well as in word and in narrative. In the Old Testament, rituals such as circumcision and the sharing of a sacrificial meal (especially the שֶׁלֶם, “peace/well-being offering”) communicated God’s continuing love and faithfulness to the human participant(s).  When we eat the bread and drink the cup of the New Covenant, we proclaim in ritual, to ourselves and to the world, the Bridegroom’s death, until he comes again (1 Cor 11:26). As Wright evocatively concludes his discussion on this relation of sacramental theology and new creation:

The sacraments themselves, which like music form their own unique language to which all theology is mere programme-notes, might help us explore afresh the interface and the inferences between God and creation. They might also point us in fresh ways to what was accomplished in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, through which, within a world already charged with God’s grandeur, that same Creator God has now dealt with the smudge, the smell and the bare soil.[5]

Just as mere performance of certain “scientific-looking” experimental procedures in a laboratory is not sufficient to produce real scientific knowledge, mere performance of biblical ritual is not sufficient to provide real knowledge of God and His world. The discursive provides the framework for the ritual to produce real knowledge—previous scientific knowledge and the scientific paradigm undergirding the ritual of experimentation, and God’s verbal revelation undergirding the rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper for the church. God’s Word tells us that he reveals himself to us in ritual, and thus the discursive and the performative are intertwined and interlocking.[6]

The gnostic bifurcation of the “natural” and the “spiritual” has convinced the secular West that only scientific epistemology can produce true knowledge, while other kinds of knowing are reduced to a second-order kind. It is this epistemology that precludes the possibility of bodily resurrection as a historical fact or a plausible future. Within this framework, “knowing by ritual” is impossible, unless it is the ritual of the scientific method.

Purpose—What Is the Chief End of Man?

In The One, the Three, and the Many, Gunton argues that the culture of modernity has failed to account for the unity and diversity of human experience, resulting in fragmentation of consciousness, knowledge, and telos or self-understanding of humanity’s purpose and direction.[7] Modernity’s conception of time, the materiality of existence, and the imputation of meaning results in a paradox: modernity is ostensibly future-oriented, while unable to live in the present.[8] The difficulty is that modernity’s “sceptical reception of tradition” results in a “culture attempt[ing] to live by the ideology of beginning all over again—the permanent exercise of creation out of nothing.”[9]

In the context of the pandemic, we find that the crisis accentuates the problem of telos or “eschatology” that hangs over modernity’s metanarrative (as it has displaced the biblical metanarrative of creation–fall–redemption–new creation): to what end or purpose are we taking drastic measures to preserve human life through lockdowns and vaccines, foster economic growth,[10] address climate change, expand the possibilities of human life in outer space, etc.? Modern secularity has offered a variety of teloi, none of which has led to vibrant human flourishing (and some of which have led to catastrophe). The Christian metanarrative of the Triune God’s relation to (and plan for) the created world can encompass and celebrate those desirable achievements of modernity. But we also must warn of the limits of modern scientism in terms of knowledge that is possible, and also in terms of the ends or aims of human existence that we cannot accept—or rather, that there are grander purposes of human existence than mere persistence of physical life. In fact, there are individual and community aims and aspirations that might require us to undertake great risk to our physical lives. Just as the perfect image of the invisible God (Col 1:15) took upon himself great risk, even unto death (Phil 2:7–8)—so the image-bearing vocation[11] of those of us who are being conformed to Christ’s image (Rom 8:29) entails risk of physical life in order to gain eternal life (Matt 16:24–27).

Next…

In the next piece, we will address the role of civil authorities and the church in protecting people against harms. After that, we will move into more practical questions about the technologizing of worship.

For more in this series, click here.


[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 66.

[2] Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), passim. For his treatment of “critical realism,” see History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology (London: SPCK, 2019), 95–105.

[3] “Part of the answer to all this is once more the epistemology of love. The point of love is that it is neither appraisal nor assimilation: neither detachment nor desire, neither positivist objectivity nor subjective projection. When I love I am delightedly engaged with that which is other than myself. Part of the delight is precisely in allowing it—or him, or her—to be the ‘other’, to be different. For the last two hundred years, as I suggested in the first chapter, Western epistemology has oscillated between the poles of objective and subjective, rationalism versus romanticism, logic and lust. The dream of scientism is for an objective certainty through which one can rule the world; genuine science explores and looks on in wonder and humility. The historian, recognising that all human knowledge is self-involving, learns to discipline the involved self so that the mind is open to different ways of thinking, to hitherto unsuspected motivations and controlling narratival worldviews. And, whether or not the historian calls it ‘love’, that exercise of sympathetic imagination is precisely the point at which the quest for meaning comes in, enabling us within the task of history to give an account of the past, which highlights real events in the knowable past and does so in such a way as to discern the meaning or pattern of the events within the worldviews of the people concerned” (Wright, History and Eschatology, 103, emphasis original).

[4] Wright, History and Eschatology, 205–206.

[5] Wright, History and Eschatology, 274.

[6] “Though there are indeed many ‘psychological’ or non-physical actions entailed in biblical worship, there are arguably many more physical acts of worship depicted in Scripture. These physical actions include baptizing, eating and drinking (taking proper meals as well as the Lord’s Supper), fasting, removing one’s shoes due to standing on holy ground, covering the head, uncovering the head, shaving the head, not shaving the head, tithing, calling upon God’s name, praying, sacrificing, bowing, kneeling, prostrating, lifting of the hands, dancing, playing musical instruments, singing, reciting Scripture, teaching, preaching, and shouting ‘Amen!’ …Physical acts of worship are often rich in symbolism, in that they point to realities outside of the acts themselves. Just as the cultural mainstream is uncomfortable with the realm of the spiritual as anything other than a reflection of personal preferences, there is also a lack of sympathetic understanding of symbolism. Thus one hears that symbolic acts are ‘merely’ symbolic, not particularly meaningful in and of themselves. Participants invest acts with whatever meaning they may desire. Of course this impressionistic democratization of interpretation is completely contrary to the strongly referential purpose of symbolism. That is to say, the intent of symbolism is to convey meaning in a relatively obvious, self-explanatory, and often public manner, therefore symbolic acts by their nature are more purposeful carriers of meaning than non-symbolic acts.” Scott N. Callaham, “Scripture and Worship,” in Dei Verbum: The Bible in Church and Society (Singapore: The Ethos Institute for Public Christianity, 2020), 45–60 [54].

[7] Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[8] Gunton, The One, the Three, and the Many, 90–91.

[9] Gunton, The One, the Three, and the Many, 96.

[10] “We economists are of course somewhat aware, or at least Frank Knight was, that we live in a ‘milieu in which science, as such, is a religion.’ Now, religion does not have to have a (pre)defined deity….Originally a religious idea of progress has become secularized into a technical belief that science can save us and that riches can not only make us happy (personal, individualistic heaven on earth), but also make society, as such, better off (general heaven on earth).” Tomáš Sedláček Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press), 235; quotation from Frank Knight, Freedom and Reform: Essays in Economics and Social Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947), 46. Notably this excerpt from Sedláček occurs within a subsection entitled, “The End of the Future and Modern Priests,” by which he refers to fellow economists.

[11] See Wright, History and Eschatology, especially 170–176; and J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), 43–90.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Culture-Economics-Society, Research, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Science, Worship, and an “Epistemology of Love”

  1. Pingback: Franklin on Metaphysics, Medicine and Modern Science | think hard, think well

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