The Holy Spirit – fields, physics and other metaphors

Today was the Pannenberg day for our MSc class on Key Thinkers in Science and Religion. After an introduction to his thought, including significant moments like Jesus – God and Man (1968), we turned to the set text for the session – Pannenberg’s discussion of the creative work of the Holy Spirit from Vol.2 of his Systematic Theology. This sets out one of his best-known ideas (at least from the perspective of the Science and Religion field), that the Holy Spirit in creative mode can be likened to a physical field, like an electromagnetic field, or a gravitational field.

All of us agreed that this is not an easy text. Pannenberg grapples with ideas from physics – in the context of Christian eschatology and Western philosophy – in such a way that he is clearly alluding to more than he can say. And we agreed that the main scholarly reactions to Pannenberg’s idea – while containing some pertinent criticisms – haven’t addressed the force of his main point.

Is Pannenberg’s idea that the Spirit is related to a field – an eschatological forcefield from the future – just a rather imaginative analogy, or is it a metaphor, or is Pannenberg trying to say something more serious about the nature of scientific and theological reality? This is the question that has been debated extensively, with the usual conclusion that Pannenberg is expressing a metaphor. And yet, as he quite rightly points out, the idea of the field is a metaphor in physics as much as it can be in theology. What’s more, his suggestion that God’s eternity constitutes our finite physical time and encloses it, in the same way that God’s immensity constitutes our finite physical space, goes some way towards attempting to integrate theological and scientific views of time and space through this mysterious concept of field.

For sure, many of the criticisms of Pannenberg’s idea are valid. It’s based on classical physics, for instance, and doesn’t take account of quantum field theories in physics (as Polkinghorne has criticised him for), and it doesn’t convey much of the personal nature of the Spirit as an equal member of the Trinity to Father and Son. What’s more, Pannenberg has a discomforting tendency to use concepts such as ‘singularity’ in ways that make this physicist shift uneasily in his seat. In spite of all of the criticisms (and they have been substantial), the general feeling in our class was that he might still be onto something.

In recent weeks we have spent much time pondering the problem of the causal joint, of how the non-material God might be said to relate and interact with this material universe. Pannenberg’s field theory provides one of the very few models that appears to make some sense of this mysterious idea. We finished the class with many questions still unanswered – as always the two hours go by quite quickly when we try to get to the roots of a challenging idea – but I for one felt that the mood was one of cautious optimism towards Pannenberg and his elusive fields.