It was a gorgeous fall day here in DC, and we decided to enjoy it and take an outing to the Washington National Cathedral this morning for their Sunday forum. The guest, as it happens, was British theologian/philosopher Keith Ward, whose work I admire and have written about frequently here at ATR.
The format was a Q&A with the dean of the Cathedral about the relation between science and religion. Not much of it would have been new to anyone familiar with Ward’s books, especially Pascal’s Fire and his more recent one, The Big Questions in Science and Religion, but it was neat to see him discussing these issues in person. He came across as wise and engaging, but in a witty, self-effacing British way. Topics that were discussed included the so-called anthropic argument (the notion that the laws of nature are “fine-tuned” for the emergence of life), the relationship between religion and evolution, and the nature of the soul.
We stayed for the 11:15 Mass, at which Ward also preached. He preached on the lectionary reading from First Thessalonians about the Parousia and how we might understand it, given that we have in many ways a radically different worldview from St. Paul’s. Paul, it seems, expected the literal end of the world within his generation, at least at the time that he wrote First Thessalonians, something which obviously didn’t come to pass. So, do we simply throw out Paul’s views about the Second Coming and the Parousia?
Ward proposed that the deeper meaning of the passage is that each moment of our lives stands under the judgment of God, but because of Jesus’ work on the cross we are granted the possibility of forgiveness and unending life with–and in–God. In particular, Ward connected the image of Jesus coming on the clouds with the concept, important in the Old Testament, of the shekhinah, the cloud of the divine glory. Jesus, in his glorification, has been united to the divine life and through him we can be united to that life too.
What this life with God will look like is open to speculation, but Ward suggested that it would be a “re-embodiment” of our selves in a dimension of existence suffused with the divine presence. In other words, we shouldn’t expect Jesus to physically return to earth, but that all sentient life will be transfigured and caught up into the divine life in a world beyond this one. (To my delight he was clear that he thought redemption would extend to sentient members of the animal kingdom.)
I’ll admit that I don’t have well-formed or settled views about the Second Coming or the afterlife, but Ward’s position definitely appeals to me. He’s trying, it seems to me, to steer a course between an implausible biblical literalism on the one hand (e.g. the apocalypticism of Left Behind) and a reductionist liberalism that would reinterpret all talk of resurrection as symbolic of psychological or political change on the other. No doubt there’s a spectrum of positions one might take between those extremes, but is was definitely one of the more philosophically stimulating sermons I’ve heard in a while. (The rest of the service was pretty great too, with some gorgeous Anglican chant and hymns from the 1982 hymnal that I haven’t sung since we were in Boston.)