Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mary Gerhart and Allan Russell: Rather Flaky Views on Religion and Science

Via a campus e-mail to all faculty:
Noted scholars Mary Gerhart and Allan Russell, Professors Emeriti at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, will give a free public lecture, “A Physicist and a Theologian Construct the Concept of a Loving Universe,” on Thursday February 12, 2009 at 4:00 p.m. in the Raynor Library Lower Level Rooms B&C.

This lecture is the latest installment in the long-running program on the dialogue between Science and Religion that has been sponsored by the Albertus Magnus Circle and the Departments of Physics and Theology.

The generous support of the Dr. Edward D. Simmons Religious Commitment Fund is gratefully acknowledged.
We got the following evaluation and critique of Gerhart and Russell from one John Burke.

[Note: the links are to proprietary databases and will only work within the Marquette campus, or for people who can log into the Marquette proxy server.]
There seems to exist precious little biographical information for either Dr. Russell or Dr. Gerhart. The most prominent work of both is related to the subject of their lecture at Marquette: an interdisciplinary dialogue between science and religion. Neither speaker seems to be overtly political or to hold radical views except perhaps within their own fields.

Russell’s separate work is fairly innocuous. I have found only one piece that might be considered contentious In it, he argues that scientific inquiry must be a felt process, that students should be taught to empathize with a system in order to truly understand it. It is difficult to know whether the man in serious (and thus blatantly unscientific) or if he is simply suggesting some sort of heuristic device.

Gerhart’s separate work may be considered a little more controversial than Russell’s, but again usually within her own field, religious studies, and for the most part not dealing with anything political. She is, to some degree, a feminist. She explains that she is a pro-choice Roman Catholic (Gender, Genre, and Religion p. 16); she also praises LaCugna’s idea to have the church ordain both men and women for short periods of time in a given community (p. 17). These opinions are controversial in both the political and the theological realms.

The bulk of controversial sentiments, however, come from their collaborative efforts and are limited to theological issues. Their opinions on epistemology, hermeneutics, and doctrine would, of course, be considered quite liberal. They have together written two books on the dialogue between science and religion: Metaphoric Process: The Creation of Scientific and Religious Understanding and New Maps for Old: Explorations in Science and Religion.

The basic premise is that metaphors act as a means of creating knew meaning from two known values (as opposed to analogy which assimilates an unknown value by use of a known one). Thus there is a process of finding new meaning and new truth from old values and this occurs both in science and theology. It is evident then that the theory subjects the Bible to relativistic interpretations according to the necessity of the times. As an example, a chapter entitled “Sublimation of the Goddess in the Deitic Metaphor of Moses” explains that Moses equated the god El with the god Yahweh, and in so doing precluded a goddess spouse for El somehow. Thus a new truth was created from two old values. This, according to them is and should be the proper trajectory for religion and science: meaning should be created.

Concerning the biblical narrative (or stories, as she calls them), Gerhart explains in “Dialogical Fields in Religious Studies” that “every generation must correct interpretations in the light of new exigencies, must imagine the structures that best allow the stories to take root in different soil and in lives different from the lives of those who heard the stories before.” For her, this means reinterpretation to preclude the inherent sexism of such an ancient and thus patriarchal text: “The basic question then was ‘Is the Bible itself sexist or did the translation insert sexism into the original texts?’ Today it is widely accepted that both the original texts and their translations are likely to reflect gender bias.”

The “exigencies” of our times which necessitate reinterpretation are often brought to the fore by scientific discovery. Thus, in essence, theological truths must be informed by societal advancement in technology and thought. The shift of focus from the earth to the universe “radically alters the sense of ‘ongoing’ revelation in the three ‘religions of the book.’ To what extent may certain concepts, such as that of ‘covenant’ and ‘islam,’ need to be reinterpreted in the new scientific context? What aspects of the question of christology are affected by the new cosmology in which Universe is the context rather than planet Earth? How are the claims of ecological theology both supported and modified by the new scientific emphasis on the Universe as distinct from planet Earth?”

Hermeneutically speaking, the books are products of Higher Criticism (more likely the New Criticism from midcentury). My own theology allows me to categorize the efforts as vain babblings.

John Burke
There is, of course, nothing wrong with having speakers on campus who are unorthodox, or even downright flaky. In fact, we wouldn’t mind if we can create a little controversy and increase attendance.

We can’t help noting, however, that the late Ed Simmons, for whom the Religious Commitment Fund is named, would also want more orthodox views represented.

Maybe sometime soon.

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Blogger Dad29 said...

alliMoses "created" a God-without-wife, eh?

8:09 PM  

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