Hefner on Meaning Making

What do we want to accomplish by bringing theology and science together? Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner offers us an answer in an article of just over ten years ago[1]. In this blogpost I summarize the main points of the article.

Hefner argues that the significance of the interaction between science and theology lies in the meaning that emerges from it. 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. 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. Hefner stresses the importance of science regarding explaining our world:

„[…] science explains the world more fully and more adequately than any other approach yet devised. (p. 96)”

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. On the basis of this axiom, Whitehead himself asserts, rather, “nature is known to us in our experience as a complex of passing events.”(p. 98)”

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

A second axiom that Hefner posits is based on Ricoeur’s work on metaphor, which Hefner combines with the proposition that language can never give adequate expression to the richness of experience. There is always a surplus of experience, hence a surplus of meaning:

“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. This inheritance itself bequeaths new meaning. Another way of saying this is that this 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:

“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) “

The main significance of Hefner’s article, I think, lies in one of the conclusions he draws from these three axioms. Hefner takes the position that theology should not take an apologetic approach to the encounter with science, but rather should 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)”

For me, this is a welcome invitation for creative thinking in theology and, moreover, for an integration of the field of ‘science-and-religion’ into mainstream theology. It will certainly inspire me the following weeks. I hope it inspires you too!

[1]          Philip Hefner (2003) Theology and Science: Engaging the Richness of Experience, Theology and Science, 1:1, 95-111 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14746700309646)


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