Occasionally we are reminded that clergy are meant to do theology. When life is much more devoted to the dangers of dead trees and the need to do something about the dampness of the kitchen in the parish hall, it comes as a jolt to have to think about things that are abstract.
“We need to avoid the danger of Deism”, our conference speaker urged. He was explaining or trying to explain that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity committed the church to engagement in mission – Jesus coming into the world showing God’s commitment to mission.
Deism was the description of the belief that grew up, after the Enlightenment, that God was a God who was remote, that he had set things into motion and had then retreated from the scene. Deism grew up because more and more science explained phenomena that had previously been attributed to the hand of God.
Standing on a Co Sligo shore, staring out to sea in one direction and up at the mighty Ben Bulben in the other, there was a sense of how former generations would have regarded such scenes and believed that here was the working of the Divine.
Any school geography class would now explain the scenery in simple natural terms. Encounters with the beauty of nature no longer demand supernatural explanations.
If we are not to return to some pre-modern view of the world, where we see spirits and demons at every turn, and where we try to maintain that physical phenomena have spiritual origins, we seem to be committed to a Deist view. We believe in God but we cannot point to his explicit activities.
Talking to the speaker afterwards, I asked where we were to find God if we were to avoid medieval superstition, wasn’t Deism our fallback position in conversations with those who were critical of the faith? We believe in the mysterious and the inexplicable, not in the actual and identifiable.
Perhaps the answer lies in the new physics he suggested. The theoretical physics with its speculations on the nature of the universe might allow a space for the presence of God.
In a year marking the bicentenary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species”, there is a certain irony in science offering the way forward for the church.