“Deep time” and religious belief

Keith Ward reviews what sounds like a pretty interesting book on “deep time” and the possible future evolution of religious beliefs.

The acceptance of deep time — of the fact that the universe has existed for billions of years and that it will continue to exist for billions of years — could, if inwardly digested, have a radical effect on human religious beliefs. In the first two chapters of this book, Schellenberg presents the scientific arguments for this view, and argues that the far-future beliefs of whatever succeeds the human species are liable to reduce our own early and primitive beliefs to virtual irrelevance. This is true in science, and we should expect it to be true of religion, too.

You could see this as the cosmic and temporal analogue to recognizing that human religious beliefs already vary widely across different communities. For many people, realizing that their own beliefs are at least partly contingent upon chance and circumstance introduces an element of doubt. The thrust of Schellenberg’s argument seems to be that contemplating what our beliefs may look like to our far-future descendents is cause for even greater skepticism.

Ward provides some good reasons for thinking that we needn’t lapse into wholesale religious skepticism, though. If there is an ultimate reality that human beings can come into contact with, it seems plausible that our experiences of it to date would not be wholly misleading.

I suspect that anyone who postulates that there is a supremely valuable source of universal and ultimate good will expect to find some specific instances of human contact with, and transformation by, this good. A search for revelation will begin, and you might expect to find that while such instances do not disclose all the truths there are to be known about the ultimate, nevertheless they provide accurate information which is not seriously misleading about the nature and goals of human existence.

But he also says that Schellenberg makes a strong case that “religious believers should be much less dogmatic, especially about very detailed and obscure and controversial beliefs” and that they should be more open to developing their beliefs in light of new insights.

I do think that Christians in particular are prone to thinking that most of the important development of our religious beliefs has already happened. We look back to the writing and formation of the Biblical canon, the great councils of the early church, and maybe the Middle Ages or the Reformation (depending on our church affiliation) as codifying, more or less for good, the right way of understanding who God is. This is probably inevitable to some extent because Christianity is based on a historical revelation. But another important motif of Christian faith–though one not emphasized as consistently–is the messianic, future-oriented dimension. Christianity teaches that the Kingdom has not come in its fullness and we still see “in a glass darkly.” This might lend support to the idea that our current beliefs about ultimate reality will undergo indefinite revision. But this has to be kept in balance with the conviction, which most Christians would share, that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide a reliable indication of what God is like.

Science, faith, and cognitive dissonance

Slate‘s William Saletan wrote a post about the much-publicized debate between creationist crackpot Ken Ham and Bill “the Science Guy” Nye in which he argued that, while creationism is a “delusion,” it’s largely harmless because people can compartmentalize their wacky theological beliefs and function perfectly well in modern society. They can even work successfully in scientific and technical fields.

He followed this up with a, to me, more interesting post about Jennifer Wiseman, a scientist working on the Hubble telescope project. Dr. Wiseman is not a young-earth creationist like Ham, but she is a Christian who believes in miracles, like the resurrection of Jesus. When asked how she reconciles science with her belief in divine intervention, Dr. Wiseman responded that miracles are

outside of the natural working of the forces of nature, and so science is not equipped to address that one way or the other. Science is equipped to address how things normally and naturally work. So as a scientist, I study the universe in the way it normally and naturally works and has worked throughout the whole history of time. I don’t look for anything else, because my scientific tools are not equipped to measure anything else. But does that mean that nothing outside of the normal, natural physical processes that science can address ever happened or ever does happen? Well, science can’t answer that question.

Saletan calls this “a textbook case of compartmentalized religion” and says that “[y]ou’d have no better luck talking Wiseman out of her belief in the Resurrection than you would talking Ken Ham out of his belief that God breathed life into the first man.”

But I don’t think this is right. “Compartmentalizing” implies a kind of cognitive dissonance, or even a “double-truth” theory of the kind held by some Medieval philosophers. This was the view that a proposition could be true in philosophy but false in religion; they occupied separate domains and could never conflict. At the time, this was an attempt to reconcile Aristotle’s philosophy (the best natural science of its day) with Christian doctrine, but it was one that the church ultimately rejected.

Based on her comments, though, I don’t think that’s what Jennifer Wiseman is doing, and I don’t think compartmentalization in Saletan’s sense is necessary for believers. A better way to think about this is that there is an order to the universe that includes but also transcends the order discerned by science. God’s actions, by definition, do not fall under the natural laws that science investigates because God transcends the order that those laws describe. On this view, there’s no intrinsic contradiction in saying that scientific laws describe the “normal” operations of nature but that God may act in ways that exceed them. Common observation tells us that dead people don’t come back to life in the normal run of things; but if “the normal run of things” doesn’t have the last word, so to speak, then such a miracle may be possible. God is the one, after all, who creates and sustains the normal operations of nature, and miracles (if they occur) are expressions of this same Power. There is one reality and one truth, but science only comprehends those aspects of reality which its methods are appropriate to.

Now, just because something can be believed without contradiction doesn’t mean that it’s true, and I haven’t said anything about whether beliefs in a divine order or miracles are justified. But the point is that it’s possible to integrate a scientific and religious view of the world without the kind of epistemic compartmentalizing that would allow something to be scientifically true but religiously false (or vice versa).

Modern science, classical theism (3)

One of the impulses motivating “revisionist” views of the divine nature (process theology, et al.) is not only that they can seem more consonant with modern science, but that they provide a more intimate and relational view of God. Many theologians have argued, in fact, that seeing God in responsive, relational terms such as those offered by process theology is truer to the biblical portrait of God. This view has widespread currency in recent theology. Even theologians with important differences from process theology have accepted that God is in some respects changeable and affected by what happens in the world. These included feminist, liberation, and other “contextual” theologians as well as “neo-trinitarian” thinkers like Jurgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson. Such thinkers tend to emphasize the differences between the biblical God and the Greek-inspired God of classical theism.

In light of this, Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod (see previous posts here and here) ask “Can a transcendent God be a personal God?” That is, can a God who exists “outside” of time and space and who brings the entire history of creation into being through one timeless divine act also be related to individual human beings in a personal and responsive way?

C&O think the answer is yes:

[C]lassical theism presents us with a God who is infinitely responsive, who has responded so fully and so completely in the one divine act of creation that no further response is possible or needed[.] In the one infinite act of creation, past, present, and future for us , God responds to all our prayers and petitions, answers all our needs, all guided by an infinite divine loving wisdom and wise loving. . . . And while God’s response to us is itself eternal and unchanging, it unfolds for us in the fullness of time. Thus God responds to this prayer in our here and now. And if we do not pray, God does not so respond. Prayer is meaningful, it does change the situation, and God does act in response to our prayers. But this does not amount to some intervention along the lines of stirring an inactive God into action, but is part of the one creative act of God who brings into existence everything that is. (p. 128)

God has, in effect, “already” taken into account every action, intention, prayer, and desire in the history of the universe and responded accordingly in the single, eternal creative act.

But even on this view, there seems to be an aspect of God that is contingent, namely God’s perfect response to the world. For if God had chosen to actualize a different world from among the (presumably) many possible ones, then to the extent that the choices, prayers,etc. of the people in that world were different from ours, God’s response would have to have been different. This seems to imply that God is not wholly unchangeable, at least on the assumption that God’s actualization of other worlds than this one was a genuine possibility.

Maybe C&O would respond that God is nevertheless not dependent on creation because it is God who chooses which possible world to make actual. This certainly distinguishes their position from those forms of process theology that deny creation ex nihilo and appear to give creation an independent ontological status. I agree with C&O in rejecting such a view. But I’m less certain how much daylight there is between their position and the more moderate “dipolar” theism espoused by someone like Christopher Southgate or Keith Ward. Both Southgate and Ward affirm creation ex nihilo and thus God’s ontological ultimacy; but both also argue that there is an aspect of God that is involved in and affected by what happens in the world.

It’s not clear to me that C&O couldn’t accept the modified dipolar theism of Southgate and Ward while still upholding their other positions. In fact, both Southgate and Ward make arguments similar to theirs in relating theism to modern science. Alternatively, C&O could bite the bullet and say that the actual world is the only possible world. God’s creative act would give rise to this world out of necessity, rather than from God’s free choice. This seems to be essentially the view of Schleiermacher, whose views C&O’s arguments echo at several points. While this would salvage divine impassibility, it would seem to mean giving up on genuine contingency in the world. If this is right, it raises the question of whether “classical theism” is as stable a construct as it seems.

These questions aside, I don’t want to suggest that Creator God, Evolving World is a bad book by any means. I found it incredibly stimulating (as these posts might suggest!) and also found a lot to agree with. Plus, at a time when “classical theism” has become something of a bogeyman, it’s refreshing to see it defended and brought into conversation with contemporary issues.

Modern science, classical theism (2)

According to Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod’s (C&O) view, God creates in a single divine act “outside” of time and space (see the previous post). In Thomas Aquinas’ terms, God is the primary cause of the existence of everything that is, while creatures are secondary causes within the time-space framework. The implication is that God can’t be invoked to explain particular events within the world. This implies that there is no competition between scientific and theological explanations.

But what does this imply for the problem of evil? “If God chooses this universe, in all its details from beginning to end in a single act, why does God allow there to be suffering and evil?” And how is God’s providence over history exercised?

C&O deploy a variation of what Christopher Southgate calls the “only-way” argument. That is, this world, with its attendant suffering, is a “package deal” of sorts. You only get free personal agents like human beings through a process like the evolutionary one, “red in tooth and claw” though it may be. This is because the processes that make life possible are also the reason that suffering exists. The growth of life depends on predation, plate tectonics lead to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and genetic variation occasionally produces genetic disorders.

There is no you or I apart from the total world order that confronts us in creation. It is not as if God made all the component parts of creation and stuck them together to make the universe. Rather, the universe is an intelligible whole and our existence is inseparable from the existence of that whole. (p. 86)

We may think we can imagine a creation without suffering, but it’s not clear this is really the case:

In the end we have no idea what it means to create a universe, or what might be possible or impossible in such a creation. While it is easy for us to imagine a world without suffering, such imaginings might not translate into a coherent and intelligible world order. If the whole is not intelligible, then such an imagined creation is a mere pipe dream, a fantasy, not realizable in fact. (p. 89)

This line of response, assuming it works, may take some of the sting out of so-called natural evil. But what about moral evil–evil deeds intentionally chosen by free agents like us? Here C&O turn to a version of the free-will defense. They lean heavily on Augustine’s account of evil as a privation to argue that the choice of evil is a lack of purpose or meaning. “The evil act has no cause sufficient for the act, and so has no cause. It is our failure in the realm of achieving the good” (p. 97) and so “God is not the cause of this deficiency simply because it has no cause” (p. 98). God is not the cause of evil, but human freedom–which in itself is a great good–makes evil possible.

God’s providence, in this view, consists in the superintendence of the entire created order. God does not “intervene” as a secondary cause among secondary causes, but God wills a universe into existence that includes evil as an inextricable element. This is either because, in the case of natural evil, it is an unavoidable side-effect of certain kinds of finite existence, or, as with moral evil, because it is made possible by the exercise of creaturely freedom.

Beyond this, though, C&O suggest that there is a divinely originated response to evil on the level of practice. “[I]f evil is a lack, something that is missing that should be there, then the solution to the problem of evil is to make up for what is lacking, to repair the damage done, and turn the evil act into an opportunity for a greater good, the good of conversion, forgiveness, and mercy” (p. 99). They propose that God responds to evil by giving human beings the resources to live toward the good by taking suffering and violence as an opportunity for mercy and forgiveness. For Christians, of course, the life and death of Jesus is the ultimate expression of this response, which “has the power to change history, to shift us from decline and restore the path of genuine progress” (p. 101).

(I have some questions about C&O’s account, but I’m going to save them for my final post in this series.)

Modern science, classical theism (1)

Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod’s book Creator God, Evolving World is fighting a two-front war. On one side, they argue, against scientific atheism, that an evolutionary worldview is compatible with theism. On the other front, they uphold a form of classical theism against various revisionist views like process theology that ascribe change, passibility, becoming, and temporality to God.

C&O offer a characterization of natural processes as an interweaving of universal laws and more probabilistic events. Nature is neither purely deterministic–with phenomena deducible from universal, invariable laws–but neither is it wholly “random” or chance-like. As revealed to us by the sciences, nature is better understood as a series of relatively stable systems of nested complexity.

There is order and regularity–some things occur in the same way always and everywhere, all things being equal. Other things occur without a systematic pattern or a direct causality but according to probabilities. And just as the two types of inquiry intersect and are mutually creative, so those events that occur according to probabilities (by chance) and those that occur systematically (according to natural laws) interweave to make a stable world process that is nevertheless subject to conditions that change. (pp. 31-2)

It is sometimes thought that theism is incompatible with a world of chance, but C&O argue that a certain directionality can be perceived in the world process–toward greater integration and higher levels of complexity. Subatomic elements stabilize in atoms, atoms stabilize in molecules, molecules form living organism, organisms increase in complexity and integration, and consciousness, and eventually self-consciousness, emerge from life. This process is not pre-determined; there is a genuine element of chance, as each of these levels of complexity is built on contingent events. But we can nevertheless trace a general arc toward greater complexity.

But what role does God play in this? C&O criticize the view, popular in science and religion circles and best exemplified by process theology, that God is also to some degree subject to chance and contingency. It is sometimes maintained that the God of classical theism–characterized as impassible, eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient–is inconsistent with a dynamic, evolving world-process that includes unpredictability and chance as essential elements. To be related to a changing world, God would also have to change.

But C&O argue that classical theism is actually more congruent with the world-picture offered by science than process theism and related views. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between primary and secondary causes, they contend that God is better thought of as the primary cause of all that exists–the ground of the entire world-order. The entire cosmos is contingent in the sense that it could have not existed, and God is the necessary being who actualizes this particular universe from a sea of possible universes.

Contrary to process theology, C&O say that it is difficult to make sense of the notion that God is subject to time and change. Drawing on relativity theory, they point out that there is no non-relative “now” that God could be present in. In fact, physics indicates that time is actually an aspect of the material world, so God as creator is also the creator of time. As Augustine saw, there is no sense in asking what God was doing “before” creation, since time is an aspect of the created order itself.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that there is no chance in the universe or that everything is determined. God actualizes this particular universe with its necessary laws and contingent events. God does not need to be invoked as an explanation for particular events (the “God of the gaps”). Rather, God is the ground of the entire series of events:

With perfect intelligence, God grasps all possible worlds, with all possible branchings, in all possible “universes,” precisely as possibilities, in a single act. With perfect wisdom and love, God chooses one possibility in its totality from its beginning to its final consummation, from all the myriad options presented by divine intelligence, in that same creative act. In Martin Ree’s expression, God “breathes fire” into one of the many mathematically possible worlds on offer. And so with complete power God realizes that one possibility, making it the one universe that exists, the one we inhabit, in all its necessity and contingency, determinisms and chance events, again in a single divine act. God’s election of this creation eliminates none of its contingency because God knows, loves, and creates this universe with precisely this set of contingencies “built in.” We do not need to place God in time in order to preserve the contingency of the universe, nor do we need to eliminate a divine and efficacious providence. For God is the answer, not to the contingency of chance events per se but to the much more profound contingency of being. It is the contingency of the very being of the universe that requires a necessary being as its source. Once we grasp this fact of divine transcendence, transcending matter, space, and time, the divine knowledge, love, and creation of the lesser contingency of chance events is implied as an automatic consequence. (p. 55)

C&O go on to discuss the implications of their view for providence and the problem of evil, human agency, ethics, and whether a transcendent God along the lines of classical theism can still be a “personal” God. I plan to dedicated at least one more post to their book.

Miscellaneous links and such, mostly theological

This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.

I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.

The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).

I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)

And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:

Nature’s “transparent rational beauty”

The kinds of considerations I was discussing in the last post are very similar to those that physicist-priest John Polkinghorne offered as part of a “modest” natural theology in his book Belief in God in an Age of Science. I posted on this several years back, but here’s the relevant portion of the post reproduced:

In the first chapter Polkinghorne discusses what he calls the “new natural theology.” There are two aspects of the physical world, Polkinghorne thinks, that provide “hints” of the existence of God. The first is the fact that our minds are fitted to understand the deep structure of the physical universe and that this structure can be expressed in elegant mathematical forumlas. “This use of abstract mathematics as a technique of physical discovery points to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe that we inhabit, and to the remarkable conformity of our human minds to its patterning. We live in a world whose physical fabric is endowed with transparent rational beauty” (p. 2).

Polkinghorne rejects as implausible the view that our ability to comprehend the fabric of the physical world and express it in the language of mathematics is a mere by-product of our evolutionary development:

No one would deny, of course, that evolutionary necessity will have moulded our ability for thinking in ways that will ensure its adequacy for understanding the world around us, at least to the extent that is demanded by pressures for survival. Yet our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life. (p. 2-3)

He likewise rejects any “constructivist” account of knowledge which says that we merely project our preference for mathematical reasoning onto the physical world. “Nature is not so plastic as to be subject to our whim in this way” (p. 3). The great discoveries of physics, however aesthetically pleasing they may be, depend on the belief that it is nature speaking to us in revealing aspects of its deep structure.

Revisiting this, it now looks to me like Polkinghorne is stealing some argumentative bases with his statement that it “beggars belief that this [capability for understanding the world] is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life.” That is to say, just because something seems surprising or astonishing doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Polkinghorne might well reply that in the absence of a convincing account of how it could happen “naturalistically,” this “remarkable conformity of our human minds to [the universe's] patterning” does provide a “hint” that something beyond blind natural processes is at work. So the question is whether there is such a convincing account (or maybe more basically what such an account would have to look like). Or is it enough to say that it’s simply a contingent fact–resulting from our minds’ long evolutionary history–that we’re able to successfully model aspects of reality?

Schleiermacher vs. theistic evolutionism

So-called theistic evolutionists sometimes distinguish themselves from creationists by saying that God used evolution to creation life on earth, rather than creating it directly through a special divine act. I’m generally sympathetic to this view, at least in the sense that I’m a theist who believes that evolution is the best account going of how life developed on earth.

However, after reading Schleiermacher, I’m having second thoughts about theistic evolution, or at least how it’s frequently explained. This isn’t because Schleiermacher was a “creationist”–at least not in the sense that we would think of that term. He certainly didn’t take the biblical creation stories to be offering historical or scientific accounts of how God made the world.

What he did think was that everything that exists is an expression of the divine creativity. Schleiermacher has an austerely non-anthropomorphic view of God: it’s a mistake, he argues, to think of God as one cause among other finite cause, or as one agent among others. There are not divine actions, but a single, eternal divine activity that expresses itself temporally in the unfolding of the created universe. God doesn’t act in response to events in the world on an ad hoc basis; everything that happens, happens because it is part of the whole created order which is willed by God. Science is capable, in principle, of giving a fully adequate account of the interconnections between events in the world; at the same time, though, the entire created order is grounded in the single divine creative act.

This implies, according to Schleiermacher, that for God there is no distinction between means and ends. Thus, to talk about God using evolution as a means of bringing about some other good (e.g., the existence of human beings) is to lapse back into the very anthropomorphic language he criticizes. Everything that exists is inextricably bound up with everything else, and we are in no position to suss out what is an end and what is a means. Or more accurately, everything is both end and means  because everything that exists is interdependent. Regarding the divine wisdom, he says this: “There is nothing outside the world which could be used as means; all things within it, rather, are so ordered that viewed in connexion with one another they each stand related as parts to the whole; while every particular in itself is so entirely both things–means and end–that each of these categories is constantly abrogating itself and passing over into the other” (The Christian Faith, § 168).

So I think Schleiermacher would say that “theistic evolutionism,” at least in some forms, is guilty of errors similar to those of “vulgar” creationism. That is, to the extent that it tries to identify certain natural processes as means that God uses to achieve a particular end, it is still thinking of God as a finite, personal agent. He would deny, I think, that Christians have any particular stake in the theological significance of evolution. Christian faith is grounded in our experience of redemption in Christ, and this transfigures our view of creation, allowing us to see it, in its entirety, as a gift of God’s good pleasure.

Schleiermacher on the historicity of the creation stories

In the part in The Christian Faith on creation and preservation, Schleiermacher takes a surprisingly (to me, anyway) modern-seeming approach to the biblical creation stories. He argues that the doctrine of creation is intended to safeguard two points: (1) that everything that exists other than God is ultimately dependent on God and (2) that God was under no “external” constraints in creating, such as being limited by some pre-existent “stuff.”

Consequently, Christians have no religious stake in any particular scientific or speculative account of the origins of the world. Schleiermacher notes that

further elaboration of the doctrine of Creation in Dogmatics comes down to us from the times when material even for natural science was taken from the Scriptures and when the elements of all higher knowledge lay hidden in Theology. Hence the complete separation of these two involves our handing over this subject to natural science, which, carrying its researches backward into time, may lead us back to the forces and masses that formed the world, or even further still. (Christian Faith, 40.1)

He concedes that the “Mosaic” account of creation was accepted as historical by the Reformers, but notes that the various Protestant confessions do not commit the church to that view. He also observes the allegorical interpretation of the “six days” was offered by the Jewish philosopher Philo and that “there always survived a somewhat obscure but healthy feeling that the old record must not be treated as historical in our sense of the word” (40.2).  Even if it was conceded, however, that the account in Genesis was historical, “it would only follow that in this way we had attained to a scientific insight we could not otherwise have acquired” (40.2). This would not be an article of faith in the proper sense, because it does not provide a greater elucidation of the feeling of absolute dependence.

Schleiermacher takes this route in part because of his separation of philosophy and natural science from religion. Religion is rooted in the experience of absolute dependence, and everything related to dogmatic theology is an elaboration of that experience, as it occurs in the community of faith. But even if we don’t go all the way with Schleiermacher here, we can still agree that what faith says about the dependence of the world on God is a different kind of claim from the theories offered by science about the world’s origin and development.

Human origins, sin, and “fiduciary” atonement

This article by theologian George L. Murphy today is a very helpful discussion of how an evolutionary understanding of human origins affects the Christian doctrines of sin and salvation. Murphy begins by arguing that the evolutionary account is more consistent with a broadly “Eastern” view of original sin (Irenaeus) than with a “Western” one (Augustine). That is to say, humanity was not created perfect but rather was made good but immature. The fall into sin consisted of a deviation from the path God intended us to travel toward the new creation:

We have then a picture of a divinely intended growth of humanity rather than the appearance of fully mature persons. But once sin comes into the world that growth is distorted. [...] The picture that we get in the early chapters of Genesis is not so much one of a single abrupt “fall” from perfection in Genesis 3 but of a gradual “falling away” that begins there and worsens in succeeding chapters, which is the point made in Genesis 6:5-7 as it introduces the Flood story.

The root of this “falling away” is a failure to trust God and that our good consists in following the path God intends for us:

Humanity could, with difficulty, have followed the path of development that God intended, for we are not hardwired, either through genes or enculturation, to behave in particular ways. Temptations would, however, have been strong. Sin was, in words of Reinhold Niebuhr, not “necessary” but “inevitable.”

Refusing to trust and obey God, humanity turned from the goal that God intended and chose another path. Soon we had gone astray. Moving away from God, we were lost in the woods and night was falling.

The longer this goes on, the more deeply successive generations are mired in sin, due to a combination of genetic endowment and social-cultural environment. And our idols proliferate as we put our trust in finite things instead of God.

In light of this understanding of sin as departure from the divinely willed path of development, Murphy proposes an account of salvation that emphasizes new creation. “Since the basic problem as I’ve sketched it is that sin has gotten human history off course, new creation can be spoken of as reorientation of the trajectory of creation.”

Drawing on the thought of Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, Murphy sketches an account of the atonement that focuses on how the death and resurrection of Jesus concretely bring reconciliation (at-one-ment) between humanity and God by creating trust (i.e., faith).

The fundamental problem that got humanity going on the wrong road, moving away from God, is failure to put our trust in the true God. Instead, as Paul argues in Romans 1, people place their confidence in all kinds of idols. That is why humanity was estranged from God, and that is what God had to correct in order to turn the course of history back to his intended goal—that is, to reconcile humanity with himself. God must destroy our faith in idols and create faith in himself.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God acts to destroy our trust in these idols and create trust in him. The cross shows us that those things we put our trust in (e.g., governments, religion, morality) can become the instruments by which God-in-the-flesh is killed! But the resurrection shows that God returns as the crucified one who brings not condemnation, but peace.

Murphy calls this a “fiducial influence” theory of the atonement. Like the more familiar “moral influence” theories associated with Peter Abelard, this account emphasizes that it’s humans who need to be reconciled to God, not vice versa, and that the cross of Christ is what makes possible that needed transformation. It differs, however, in emphasizing that it’s faith, not morality, that saves us.

The “Christ-event” creates this trust/faith, which makes possible our re-orientation onto the path God intended for us:

God’s initial work of bringing sinners from spiritual death is followed by continual renewal of faith and sanctification throughout life. The lives of people are turned back toward God, part of the process in which God reorients the course of creation toward accomplishment of his plan spoken of in Ephesians 1:10, to unite all things in Christ.

This re-orientation has social and even cosmic implications, as “a renewed humanity taking seriously God’s call to care for the earth as God’s garden and to exercise responsible stewardship for creation.” Being rightly related to God allows us to be rightly related to each other and to the rest of creation.

I’ve long found Forde’s discussion of the atonement to be helpful because of its focus on how the concrete actuality of the cross effects reconciliation (rather than on some metaphysical “transaction” happening behind the scenes). And I agree with Murphy that his “fiduciary” theory is more consistent with an evolutionary understanding of human origins than certain traditional atonement theories–for example those which presuppose that physical death is a result of human sin.