Philip Hefner on Experience

Coded Language -
Coded Language –

This blogpost offers a summary and review of “Theology and Science: Engaging the Richness of Experience“.

Philip Hefner argues that the significance of the relation between science and theology is to be found in the meaning that emerges from this relation. This meaning is both expressed and recreated through language.

Hefner sees theology’s role as interpretative. Science delivers the raw material upon which theology reflects in order to discover meaning.

What is the primary task for theology in its interaction with the natural sciences? Briefly put: the task is to interpret the meaning of nature. Theology seeks to interpret the meaning of the natural world and human life in that world as it is described by scientific explanations.  (p. 95)

Meaning and explanation are related concepts, according to Hefner. Explanation has to do with ordering experiences, and functions as a filter when we search for meaning.

Experience comes first, as the pell-mell rush of life in which we are immersed at every moment.

Explanation is the attempt to order experience, to identify causes and forge their coherence, often motivated by sheer curiosity, often by the desire to manipulate the causes so as to reinforce or alter the experience.

Explanation is also an essential ingredient of meaning. In our efforts to discover the meaning of our experience, we bring the overlay of explanation to that experience. (p. 96)

Hefner posits three criteria for meaning: Is it coherent? Does it reveal what is valuable to me? Does it sustain me as a person? But meaning is not just the result of „applying the tests”.

The process that engages these three tests also includes the creation of something new. Meaning is not achieved only by applying the tests, rather novelty has to occur. (…) the struggle for meaning in nature is a mediated, second-hand, experience in that it is molded by our human ideas (constructions) and is as fully implicated in our language about nature as it is with nature in and of itself. (p. 97)

Hefner argues, based on Whitehead and James, that meaning cannot be drawn out of nature directly, but rather is mediated to us through thought and language. The mediated character of meaning leads Hefner to the first of three axioms:

We may call this the Whiteheadian axiom, and it is critical for our understanding of how we approach nature: nature is not a given entity outside of ourselves that causes our experience, and our experience of nature is not an experience of the effects of those causes. (p. 98)

This axiom implies the inability of human thought and language (or thought-and-language, as Hefner would say, stressing the intertwinement of both elements of this dyad) to fully express the richness of experience.

This axiom is critical for our endeavor, because it qualifies all of the ideas and the language that mediate nature to us in our experience. Not only are scientific concepts not exhaustive of nature, neither are the ideas that are shaped by our philosophy, theology, and creative literature, such as nature-as-sacred, nature-as-garden-to-be-tended, nature-as-resource-for-our-every-need, and nature-as-enemy-to-be-conquered. (p. 98)

A second axiom that Hefner posits is based on Ricoeur’s work on metaphor:

From Ricoeur we may draw a second axiom, alongside that of Whitehead: Our ongoing transaction with nature is marked by an effort to stretch, relocate, the significations of our ideas and the language that articulates them. We are under a constant pressure to discover new significations and new ideas else we can neither understand our own experience of nature nor communicate it and reflect on its meaning. (p. 99)

At this point, Hefner brings in the importance of our cultural inheritance. We inherit ideas, concepts, expressions of experiences our ancestors have had.

When we seek to invest the natural world and our lives with meaning, we find ourselves weighing meanings that have been bequeathed us from the past in comparison with new meanings that we may espouse. Our investment of meaning becomes in fact a re-investment, and it is often rendered more difficult precisely because we are not approaching nature as pristine, but rather as a reality that comes inextricably entangled with inherited ideas that are deeply enmeshed with meanings. (p. 102)

Hefner goes on to say that this inheritance itself bequeaths new meaning. Another way of putting this, I think, is that our cultural inheritance is part of the way we experience nature.

Metaphor is the nature of the process by which meaning is created, Hefner points out, because it allows for (inherited) meanings to shift and change, or even forces them to do so. This is Hefner’s third axiom.

Gerhart and Russel (…) insist that metaphor is not only a phenomenon of language, but also a process of thought. They prefer to speak of the “metaphoric process,” rather than of meta-ephors as tropes.

From Gerhart and Russell we may draw a third axiom: New meanings merge in our understanding of nature when we forcibly equate concepts that exist in two different fields of meaning, thereby distorting our existing meanings so as to engender new worlds of meaning. (p. 104)

To me, the main point of this article lies in one of the conclusions Hefner draws from his three axioms. Hefner takes the position that theology should not take an apologetic approach to the encounter with science, but rather seek to use science in creating new meaning in the world as described by science.

(…) the point, however, is not to reformulate doctrines so that they can pass muster with scientists and philosophers of science. Rather, the aim of reformulating is to enable traditional faith to be a catalyst for the creation of new meaning—creating meaning that will enable us to understand our lives in the world meaningfully, in the world whose causes and coherence science describes. (…) Rather, the aim is to serve the human community in its struggle to understand how the natural world can be a meaningful ambience for human living. (p. 109)

„Enabling traditional faith to be a catalyst for the creation of new meaning – creating meaning that will enable us to understand our lives in the world meaningfully, in the world whose causes and coherence science describes” seems to me to be the main thrust of Hefner’s „The Human Factor” and „Technology and Human Becoming”, and one should keep this in mind when reading these works.

To me, influenced as I am by Lieven Boeve’s concept of reconceptualization (which itself builds on and expands Edward Schillebeeckx’s work), this sounds familiar. But make no mistake: taking up this task asks a lot from theology. It requires a thorough knowledge of and deep love for inherited tradition, the courage to take this inheritance into new, uncharted territory and foremost it asks us to trust that this voyage will indeed reveil how „the natural world can be a meaningful ambience for human living.” And if that sounds a bit like something Teilhard de Chardin would say to you, I think you might be right

First Sunset/Emmet's Adventures/picture by Chris Alcoran (
First Sunset/Emmet’s Adventures/picture by Chris Alcoran (

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