Brian Curry: Christ, Creation, and the Powers: Elements in a Christian Doctrine of Creation

(Daniel Deen) #1

The authors of Christ and the Created Order have noted the fact that, although Jesus Christ is in every way central to the Christian faith, christology is usually poorly represented in the science-faith discussion. The New Testament describes a cosmic Christ, who is not only the key to the unfolding new creation through his death, resurrection and glorification, but is also the source and purpose of the old creation - the world that science studies.*

The reviewers here (Daniel Deen and Jon Garvey) endorse this need for a more christological approach. As ever though, the devil is in the detail, and we seek in these chapter reviews to bring our own insights to bear on the views offered in the book.

Brian Curry offers an intriguing look at New Testament ontology. His basic position is to establish a trifold view of creation: Christ, Creation, Powers. Most of the chapter is given over to elaborating the nature of the powers, followed by two brief illustrations concerning how the powers might help with theodicy and the science/religion dialogue. Curry’s concern is that too much of traditional discussions concerning the doctrine of creation is binary and flat. Western analytic minds tend to reduce discussions of creation to God/Christ and creation/world. The result is often a perspective that is rather deistic in nature,

“…the creator God who sets in motion and (usually) providentially guides a fundamentally disenchanted world of material” (p. 78).

To correct for this flat ontology, Curry suggests that Scripture rarely discusses Jesus and creation apart from a third category of Powers (c.f., 1 Cor. 8:6; Hebrews 1; Romans 8). A reintroduction of Powers into our discussions concerning Jesus and creation, according to Curry, re-enchants the universe through recognizing a third active party to understanding the natural world,

“a sort of mediating realm of agencies or powers, which is neither reducible to mere matter nor aggregate human agency” (p. 78).

His discussion of the Powers is heavily dependent on the work of John Howard Yoder in his book, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1994). According to Yoder, the Powers are

“those values and structures which are necessary to life and society” (p. 82). “The creative power [of God] worked in a mediated form,” continues Yoder, “by means of the Powers that regularized all visible reality” (p. 82).

However, the Powers, being part of creation also fell with creation and are in open rebellion with God. Thus, the importance of the cross to creation,

The cross and resurrection are God’s way of subduing the powers and reinstating Christ as the head over all creation” (p. 84).

Thus, according to Curry, New Testament ontology is an enchanted and embattled ontology. Creation is an active place where the struggle between humility and idolatry rages in spite of the finality of the cross. We are seduced by the false promises of the Powers to make life better, longer, more eudaemonistic, sacrificing great amounts of energy to their promotion at the expense of the peace found in Christ crucified and resurrected.

Curry provides two closing examples where the standard thoughts about Christ and creation could be made thicker through reflection on the Powers: theodicy and science/religion. Beginning with theodicy, Curry argues that an understanding of the Powers and Jesus’ relationship to them helps side-step a dilemma intractable to the more traditional discussions of the problem of evil. Traditionally, theodicy is conceived as absolving an active God with a passive world. God’s sovereignty and a world containing evil is either attributed to God’s active work in the world or human sin(s). The former is not a path many Christians traverse, opting instead for human fallenness. However, this, according to Curry, really only engages human sin and not a cosmic fall. It forces a “flat-footed theodicy” where the fallen creation is juxtaposed to some divine plan or intention for creation.

“If only we could see the bigger picture, we would recognize that all the disasters and violence in the world are not truly evil but necessary for God’s ‘big plan’” (p. 89).

This, argues Curry, might make it difficult to love God with our whole hearts. The Powers allow us to reject the dilemma as false as a New Testament ontology is not a “good” creation, but a creation in rebellion and human bondage to the Powers. Evil is not something discussed causally, but rather that which God is in opposition to and subdued through the cross and resurrection.

The last section examines how the powers may contribute to one’s understanding of how science and religion may relate to each other. Curry’s most developed thought regards a way of approaching methodological naturalism. It is part and parcel, Curry argues, that science refrain from ultimate teleological answers. However, it is also part of science’s rebellious nature, understood as a Power, to elevate the MN to a metaphysical or cosmological principle. Science and its methods provide for a “creeping materialism” that left unchecked will enslave a person to total immanence without the possibility of transcendence. Thus, suggests Curry, a scientist who is also Christian must remain steeped in the Church and the message of Christ’s resurrection as the defeater of materialism. Christ’s freedom is a freedom from the enslavement to reductionism, the return to humility, and a proper role for scientific inquiry into the nature of the cosmos.

I really enjoyed Curry’s chapter. It reminded me that academic work can be done with a more spiritually active universe than is often tolerated in the academy, and his emphasis on the complete rebellious nature of the cosmos resonated with my conservative Lutheran sensibilities. I also was pleased to read that Curry has scientific experience through time spent in a pharmacology research lab at Vanderbilt. This was most likely undergraduate experience, but it is still experience that is often lacking with theologians (as well as philosophers). However, I do have a few questions regarding the chapter. These are bigger picture questions than I think the chapter was designed to tackle, but might make for a bit of conversation here at PeacefulScience.

  1. I’m curious as to what an understanding of the New Testament ontology regarding Powers might provide for the science/religion conversation. Conversations concerning humility and arrogance (i.e., idolatry) occur pretty regularly in the science/religion conversation and I’m curious what Curry’s angle might provide for the overall conversation that is not or has not been covered in more ontologically neutral language?

  2. I’m curious as to the audience of the theodicy conversation. I see theodicy as a graph with two intersecting axis. On one hand, you have a pastoral vs theoretical axis. Pastoral discussions concerning the problem of evil revolve around addressing a particular persons actual experience of pain in relation to a supposedly all good God. The theoretical axis is more the traditional questions of how to square logically an all powerful, all loving, all knowing God with a world that exhibits evil. On the other hand, you have a Christian vs non-Christian axis. The Christian will have different sorts of questions about evil in relation to a good God than the non-Christian. Curry’s discussion seemed well-suited for a Christian plotted more along the theoretical axis. How might his thoughts relate to other quadrants?

  3. I also have epistemological concerns. How do I discern when Powers are corrupting a practice such as science? When is it the Powers, when is it human will, when is it the devil, when is it…? I agree that the world is ontologically more strange than we ever suspected or will suspect. However, I get nervous when people tell me that I should include ontological entity X or Y into my understanding of scientific finding Z. I also get nervous when people tell me that I have to exclude ontological entity X or Y from my understanding of scientific finding Z. I suppose, I simply do not trust myself to be able to identify when or where I should label some sort of finding due to the Powers or not. I have a similar problem with understanding divine action in our world, and Curry has now added a third general entity that ought to be accounted for. In what ways does his New Testament ontology help my epistemic situation here on earth in practice?

Mount Everest and Evolution
(Jon Garvey) #2

Daniel, I found the chapter refreshing too, simply for dealing with “the powers” at all. When I was doing my series on “Christological Creation” many moons ago, it struck me just what a high proportion of things mentioned in “creation” by Paul and others were such powers, and we have to grapple with that. For too long we’ve got away with sustaining an unbiblical “God, us and matter” universe on the basis that everything else is mediaeval superstition.

I was also amused by Curry’s bold identification of “science” as one of the powers. And why not, since it’s as human a power-activity now as politics or religion? I think one can exaggerate the fears you express in your #3: we get pretty slick at doing politics and religion whilst realising its potential to corruption, and mainly that’s because we learn discernment and caution. The problem comes when we treat any area as spiritually neutral ground, I think.

I actually put a (short) chapter on the powers in “God’s Good Earth,” which book concentrates on the natural creation rather than the human. Curry said less about that, but seemed to assume its fall as part of the inevitable deal of sin (or maybe more, see below*). My own survey of the texts suggested that there’s virtually nothing in Scripture suggesting that corrupt powers get a look in on nature: God, in Christ, seems to reserve its government for himself. So maybe we can distinguish “nature” from “science” in that regard.

  • One way of critiquing the idea of an ancient cosmic fall of the powers is that Genesis quite clearly teaches that, at the point man comes along, creation is still “very good.” So we have to interpret aeons of evolution, extinctions, vulcanism, KT events and so on in that light, rather than through the lens of corruption by malevolent powers. It seems to me that the Scripture suggests that such a “fall of the powers” was precipitated by the events of the garden of Eden - a mere blip in the history of the universe, not its explanation.

(Daniel Deen) #3

This is good to know and explore in some more detail. One of my biggest concerns, although I didn’t state it, with the chapter was the lack of biblical exegesis/study. Curry focuses on the NT through the work of Yoder and a few others. However, I’d want to see a bit more on the relation between OT and NT and specific work on passages to help bolster his case. Of course, I understand that you can only do so much in a chapter. I look forward to seeing more of his work in a dissertation or series of articles.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

With great frustration I note I’ve been unable to engage as much as I’d like. I am swamped with both finishing off this book, and with a new baby in my life. I’m still reading this intently. Thank you for your thoughts @Philosurfer.

@jongarvey includes some more thoughts on this thread here:

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #5

Does he ever engage the fact that Jesus subdues powers by wielding power in a different way, embracing powerlessness…


Hey Joshua. Take a few days off, I’m sure that moderators can handle everything. :slight_smile:

(Jacob) #7

Take a break, enjoy some time with your family. There will be that much more here to look forward to catch up on later. :slight_smile:

(Jon Garvey) #8

Many congrats to you and your wife!

(Guy Coe) #9

Yes! Congratulations, new papa!

(Jon Garvey) #10

I’m not sure which kind of baby is more difficult to bring to birth - the human kind, or the book kind.

(Guy Coe) #11

Babies that grow up to be bookish are a bit harder, but you’re not under a deadline… : )