Laing Lectures III: Matter & Spirit in an Age of Technology

Human BrainThanks, Ryan, for the summaries of the first two lectures (here and here). Work & class responsibilities have kept me from doing much reflection on the lectures thus far, but here’s my crack at summary-and-response for the third round. Mega-props to Ryan for sharing his notes to fill out the gaps in mine, and to first respondent Dr. Craig Gay for his helpful summary of a lecture that I  found tough to follow at times. Consider this a provisional summary. Those who saw the lecture and followed better than I did: please refine/correct me as needed in the comments.

Christians perennially face two sorts of cultural challenges: overt (obvious and often issue-specific) and ontological (subtle and related to our most basic conceptions of the fabric of reality). Borgmann contends that science and technology have created the second sort of challenge. Time, space, distance, and location no longer pose the same boundaries and restraints as they once did, and so we are in some sense “de-materialized.” We are tempted to reduce all things to “mere” chemistry, biology and physics, and thus believe that we have understood them. This has led to a dis-spirited view of the world, and dis-spirited people marked by sullenness, boredom and/or hyperactivity, fleeing to cyberspace for stimulation to fill the void.

Borgmann counters this view with a reminder that throughout the canon (particularly in the Gospels), matter and spirit are portrayed in messy intertwining. And, ironically enough, developments like post-Newtonian physics and the mammoth task of brain mapping should leave room for renewed wonder, a sense of mystery, and the expectation of spirit’s ongoing work in the material world. (“spirit” I leave un-capitalized and without an article, because I wasn’t entirely sure when/if he was referring specifically to the Holy Spirit.) Thus, rather than allowing the great complexities revealed by modern science to overwhelm and deaden us, we should welcome these developments as opportunities to see anew how the Spirit hovers over–and breaks into–our material world.

I have questions about particular points of this presentation, but the biggest one emerges for me at the end: the “God-of-the-gaps” issue. If we need intimate complexity or quantum uncertainty to “leave room” for wonder at the work of the Spirit, what happens when physicists actually discover the Higgs-Boson or develop the GUT? It seems to me that we’re on shaky ground if we appeal to mystery in the created world for value in apologetics or spiritual formation, at the mercy of the next great scientific discovery. Shouldn’t we rather be encouraging each other to recognize and marvel at the Spirit’s gracious presence in processes mundane and profound, in the formation of galaxies, and cookies, and friendships–regardless of the ontological claims of the age?

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