Lecture 5: Called to Truth

Senior Professor Michael Welker gave the fifth of his six Gifford Lectures earlier this evening. The video of Welker’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version is available at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion. Dr Tripp Fuller will offer his initial reflections on the lecture Fuller is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Divinity here at the University of Edinburgh and he is also the host of the popular theology podcast Homebrewed Christianity. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Welker’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Welker started off the lecture by giving a general road map to where he would go in this lecture concerning the multimodal nature of truth. The first section of his lecture aimed to deal briefly with various conceptions of truth and the various aspects that characterize the search for truth and the dissemination of knowledge. In the second section he aimed to discuss the significance of international and interdisciplinary searches for truth by scholars and scientists that seek “to expand their approaches to anthropology and whose findings can acquire relevance for an anthropology shaped from the perspective of natural theology.” In the final section of his lecture he aimed to bring in various “concepts of God within natural theology that might support such anthropological findings.” He was quick to point out, however, “that the insights and assertions of natural theology itself must be subjected to modern critiques of religion.” He also hinted that, in this final section of his lecture, he would inquire into “whether the assertion from the theology of revelation  that ‘God is spirit and seeks to be worshipped in the spirit and truth’ can be rendered as an assertion commensurate with natural theology.” Furthermore, here at the beginning Welker briefly noted that he would take issue with bipolar approaches to understanding truth when they are taken to be absolute—the bipolar constellations of truth and approaches to understanding truth, according to Welker, are better understood “as manifestations of the multimodal spirit” of truth.

The first major section of his lecture was entitled “Truth within the arc extending from accuracy to internationally organized scientific and scholarly searches for truth.” He began by discussing the common association of truth with accuracy and correctness and he then moved on to discuss truth’s relationship to certitude and certainty. Next he went on to speak about formal searches for truth within the context of university settings. As he went on to say, “the fact that attention is occasionally and quite justifiably drawn to pioneering innovations outside organized research institutions militates not at all against the sustaining value of an organized system of research, scholarship, and teaching.” Welker made a point to state that the spirit of truth isn’t simply about evaluating, testing, and confirming truth claims but that it is also guided by and aimed at the creative expansion of new knowledge.

Furthermore, Welker ended this section of his lecture by speaking about the ethical significance of “the spirit of truth that radiates far beyond the sphere of science and scholarship out into society at large.” In order to further unpack this Welker engaged with the philosopher Volker Gerhardt concerning the connection between disregarding truth in order to cultivate one’s own image, such as Donald Trump has  done since becoming president of the United States. on numerous occasions As Welker went on to state, “Gerhardt justifiably insists that people had ‘underestimated the moral significance of truth while overestimating its metaphysical status.’ When the will to assert serious and resilient truth claims is abandoned, we lose our moorings in thinking, acting, and interacting. It is precisely the ‘relativity of the human experience of the world’ and the ‘variety, contrariness, and even enduring irreconcilability of positions that must make us conscious that, indeed, nothing is more urgent now than to hold fast to truth.’”

At this point Welker moved on to the second section of his lecture entitled “An interdisciplinary search for truth and its discovery of a differentiated natural-theological anthropology.” Here Welker talked about his experience working with scientists and scholars from various disciplines (e.g. physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, religious studies, and systematic, ethical, historical, and biblical theology) who eventually came to the conclusion that a multidimensional approach was needed in order to best address the complexity of anthropological inquiries.

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He also pointed out that key figures (such as the apostle Paul) who have commonly been taken to promote a bipolar approach to understanding the human spirit and body are in fact much more multifaceted than they are initially acknowledged to be. In speaking of this more nuanced understanding of Paul’s anthropology (in conversation with the New Testament scholar Gerd Theißen) Welker stated, “the body, for example, cannot simply be identified with predatory flesh focused on self-preservation but is instead the locus of various energies associated with the soul and spirit, hence the locus of the polyphonous interaction between all its members and a source of multidimensional psychosomatic resonance.” As Welker went on to claim, “although his [Paul’s] anthropology is indeed tied to a theology of revelation, its fundamental insights can also be clearly explicated and applied at the level of natural theology” and they also contribute to a multimodal understanding of the human spirit that is sufficiently capable of critiquing “bipolar-intellectualist conceptions” of the human spirit. Here Welker briefly and sympathetically referenced the Old Testament scholar Bernd Janowski and his work on the anthropology found within the Old Testament. In doing so Welker claimed that a “particular mode of operation that focuses on a broad selection of culturally and religio-historically oriented disciplines and their claims to knowledge,” as exhibited by Janowski’s work, “similarly provides a promising contribution to natural theology.”

Welker now moved on to the final section of his lecture entitled “’God as Spirit’—translating a statement from the theology of revelation into a statement commensurate with natural theology.” Welker began this section by engaging with Wolfhart Pannenberg and inquired into the origin of the term “natural theology” (which he traced back to Panaetius, the founder of Middle Stoicism). Welker proceeded to further inquire into what has been meant by “natural” theology and he briefly engaged with various attempts that tended to incorporate “speculative metaphysics and implausible cosmology.” He then briefly discussed the criticisms of religion put forward by Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche as well as the theological responses of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich. Welker stated, “theological critiques of religion must hold fast to the theological and ethical realism—with their accompanying truth claims—that Nietzsche himself perceived only in a distorted fashion and portrayed as blatant caricatures.” Later on in this section of his lecture Welker positively focused on Dietrich Bonheoffer’s realization that we needed more “multidimensional” and “polyphonic” thinking rather than “the single-dimensionality and linearity characterizing the thinking of most people.” Welker quoted Bonhoeffer at length here:

Christianity, on the other hand, puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; in a way we accommodate God and the whole world within us. We weep with those who weep at the same time as we rejoice with those who rejoice. We fear . . . for our lives, but at the same time we must think thoughts that are much more important to us than our lives. . . . Life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multidimensional, polyphonic. What a liberation it is to be able to think and to hold on to these many dimensions of life in our thoughts. . . . One has to dislodge people from their one-track thinking (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 405; cf. Welker, Theologische Profile, 116).

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Welker argued that natural theology can likewise “profit today by picking up on this initiative to expand one’s thinking by engaging precisely this multimodal activity of the spirit.” He went on to state that the question concerning the essence and nature of God have been and continue to be centrally significant for the program of natural theology. Welker himself proposed that we could offer an answer to this by translating a famous theological statement from revealed theology in terms that are “commensurate with the conceptual world of natural theology.” The specific statement that he mentioned was from the Gospel of John that states, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24 NRSV). Focusing on the beginning part of that statement Welker sought to inquire into the “anthropological and ethical resonance of this divine power” in order to get a better understanding of what it means for humans to be made in the image of God. Here he succinctly recapped some of the key findings in the lectures up to this point:

  • Human beings are indeed made in God’s image as destined seekers and practitioners of justice with an ethos of equality in a world replete with injustice and inequality.
  • Human beings are indeed made in God’s image in their destined commitment to freedom in both personal and social life circumstances in a world that presents countless hindrances to such freedom.
  • Human beings are indeed made in God’s image as destined seekers of truth and in their multifaceted if fragile efforts to attain and communicate in both thought and action an element of correctness, certitude, consensus, coherence, commensurability, and fertile and liberating knowledge.

He closed his penultimate lecture of the series by insightfully stating that “human beings are, on the one hand, beings gifted with earthly and transient life powers who, on the other hand, are destined to live from within the powers of the divine Spirit and in the process not only to gain a portion of these powers but also to communicate them to their fellow human beings and fellow creatures.” At this point he promised to summarize and integrate these themes further in the following final lecture as he further incorporates the fact that human beings are “being made in the image of God through their destined commitment to peace.”

3 thoughts on “Lecture 5: Called to Truth

  1. It has been an honor and real treat to be physically present for Prof. Michael Welker’s Gifford lectures, having just arrived to the University of Edinburgh. I’ve been a long time admirer of Welker’s contributions to systematic theology and deep investment in pioneering a new model for interdisciplinary investigation, so I was eager to see the methodological approach Welker would take to the Gifford lectures and the structure of his natural theologizing. In this specific lecture I noticed a number of features, of his less explicit methodology, come to the fore that I would like to highlight with a couple questions. In addition to the methodological ingenuity Welker has displayed, I believe the boundaries of Lord Gifford’s request have nudged Welker into a new and energizing tonality for those shaped by revealed theology. In hopes of luring Welker into sharing more of his intuitions I have a couple additional observations and questions.

    In section one of the lecture Welker makes a robust affirmation of the truth seeking institutions which have shaped his career. In an age waking to the moral numbness our post-truth culture has cultivated, this affirmation is needed. What is most intriguing to me is his proposal for a clearly constructive yet postmodern agenda. He begins by affirming the effective and efficient power of bipolar truth seeking, but begs us to recognize that a binary framing requires abstraction and the fullness of truth cannot be abstracted. Doing so often occasions the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Not only does a multimodal affirmation of truth serve as an affirmation of a multiplicity of disciplines, but also the diverse multitudes of people whose situatedness is now recognized (he expands this through the multimodal account of Pauline anthropology in section two). By affirming the utility of bipolar investigation, but resisting its finality and deflating its certainty, Welker is able to offer a peculiar constructive form of postmodernism. Here there is an insistence on taking the whole of evidence and experience into account, while recognizing that contradictions need not spell defeat. As Whitehead noted when discussing the Galileo example Welker gave in the lecture, “a clash of doctrines is not a disaster – it is an opportunity.”

    The second section of the lecture is a splendid example of such an opportunity. The inertia of the Western tradition so often pulls even the most creative thinkers towards a bipolar – often dualistic – anthropology. Here Welker shared how actual interdisciplinary partnerships he facilitated were imaginatively shaped by a return to the non-binary anthropology of Paul within the Biblical witness. What’s striking here is that within the particular texts of a tradition was the generative impulse needed to expand the investigation. The recognition of this particular Pauline contribution did not necessitate a universal affirmation of Paul (a scary thought indeed). Too often what we find in our investigations is shaped by what we are looking for, so this multimodal investigation resists the narrowing of the question to a framing fit for an answer. It is as if the spirit of truth is beset against the devil of half-truths writ full.

    Hopefully raising to mind the elements from the lecture that stuck out to me will help in communicating these questions. As a theologian, Welker’s wisdom gained from participating in such interdisciplinary conversations is eagerly welcomed.

    1) I chose to describe Welker’s method as a type of constructive postmodernism because he’s been sensitive to the gains and critiques of modernity, while resisting a kind of exaggerated and relativizing post-truth move. In addition, a number of other philosophical theologians indebted to Whitehead have sought to use a similar approach under the same name (ex. David Ray Griffin). It is constructive in that it recognizes any construct of a truth is just that, a construction, and should be treated as such. This recognition is a threat to a truth’s finality, but not its vitality. While this lecture series is specifically addressing anthropology, does the given theological loci impact the nature of the interdisciplinary engagement?

    2) In the chapter of “Science and the Modern World” Welker references, Whitehead points out that “when Darwin or Einstein proclaim theories which modify our ideas, it is a triumph for science. We do not go about saying there is a defeat for science, because its old ideas have to be abandoned…religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.” This passage has always challenged me because it forces the theologian to reflect on the places in which fidelity to a living tradition may not be repetition of the past but transformation. Welker is indeed fit to seek advice given his work in these lectures and beyond. In what ways does a multimodal approach help one negotiate this challenge when situated within a historic religious tradition? Are their specific areas, from Welker’s experience, in which theologians and the church remain too slow to change or too eager to jettison the inheritance of the tradition?

    In the third and final section of the lecture Welker performs a translation of a statement from the theology of revelation into a statement commensurate with natural theology. Here the later Bonhoeffer ultimately serves as inspiration for a polyphonic form of theological thinking, but Welker’s criticisms of both an absolutizing metaphysical and totalitarian subjectivist form of thought is essential. In the lecture and elsewhere Welker has cultivated a precise critique of both. It is easy, he observes, to make “God is Spirit” sing by generating a philosophical system out of a universalizing abstraction or by erasing the distance between the spirit of God and one’s own consciousness by theologically thematising subjective immediacy. These manoeuvres are manifold, but ultimately fail to survive critique from the masters of suspicion (he mentions Marx and Nietzsche) or fund a vibrant spiritual expression. Neither the harbour of revelation alone, the power of existential correlation, nor the universal inscribing of religion upon the human heart is sufficient. God, who is Spirit, cannot be smuggled into humanity and its search for truth. Not only is the smuggled deity less than compatible with the Biblical witness that funds much of Welker’s work, but part of Bonhoeffer’s observations about a world come of age is the necessity to move beyond the authoritarian habits and totalizing presumptions of Christendom. Yes our thinking must be multidimensional and polyphonic, but we do so (as theologians) not simply to give an account of the Spirit but to give an account of lived human experience.

    Here are my more personal theological questions for our prestigious lecturer.
    1) Many natural theologies sought to demonstrate the necessity of the God they articulated. How would you temper or reframe the question of divine necessity in light of what you have learned through this approach? Your Bonhoeffer reference reminded me of Jüngel’s interpretation of God in the later Bonhoeffer as ‘more than necessary.’

    2) How would you compare/contrast the nature of the Spirit you have developed with the ‘cosmic piety’ of Whitehead? (I remember reading an article you wrote about it) His emphasis on value and aesthetics connects to a number of points in your lectures. Plus the role of worship (very broadly defined) in his account of religion in “Science and the Modern World” seems mutually enriching.

    Well I have a bunch of other questions, but don’t want to run much longer. Just know how impressed and appreciative I am of the lectures and the opportunity to interact. As a minister and theologian of the church I am extremely grateful for your own fidelity to your vocation and the passion which you communicate.

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  2. Dear Tripp Fuller,
    Thank you for your all too kind response. I feel perfectly understood and rejoice in our common illumination by the work of Whitehead. When I wrote my book “God the Spirit” I was wondering whether I should label my theological approach “postmodern”, “biblical”, or “realistic” theology.
    I decided against “postmodern”, because I did not want to be identified with a “soft” relativistic Postmodernism. I decided against “biblical” because I did not want to pretend to be a biblical scholar and, of course, by no means a “biblicist”. So I decided for a “realistic theology” with a nuanced understanding of realism (neither naturalism or materialism, nor any spiritual orbits without connectedness to empirical and historical reality). With this background I feel myself wonderfully represented by your statement, he is “affirming the utility of bipolar investigations, but resisting its finality and deflating its certainty”.
    I found the area of anthropology a particularly fruitful one to test truth-claims on both sides in the dialogue between sciences and theologies. As a rule, I tested leading figures of thought in Systematic Theology (Whitehead would speak of leading “abstractions”) in dialogue with biblical texts (and exegetical research) on the topic under investigation on the one side and contributions of scientists to the topic on the other.
    You are right, that I learned a lot from genious Bonhoeffer. (However, I noticed his praise of the “polyphony of life” after I had become aware of this praise with the help of Hegel, Whitehead, Luhmann with their theories and above all inspired by the biblical traditions and biblical pneumatology and like-minded theological friends, above all, Jürgen Moltmann.) I have never been fond of Jüngel’s statement “God is more than necessary”, because I do not like “overtrumping rhetorics” in theology. They tend to try to “smuggle in God at the edges of life” – to quote Bonhoeffer again. Since I also resist totalitarian metaphysical approaches in theology, am not fond of any vague nature and cosmic piety.
    Again, my deep gratitude,
    Michael Welker

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