In the 1946 Scott Holland lectures, Maurice Reckitt made a telling observation about Karl Barth’s influence on Catholic theology, one that I think still holds true for today. Reckitt writes,

Under the impact of the ‘theology of crisis’ and the challenge of a Neo-Calvinism the force of which has been felt every bit as much among the best men of the Catholic mind in the Church of England as it has in more evangelical circles, the very word ‘social’ has become an object of suspicion to those who have recognized the gravity of Karl Barth’s strictures upon a religion of ‘Christianity and …’. Realization of the spurious or inadequate character of what was so unhappily described as the ‘social Gospel’ has disposed many (though not of course the zealots of the Left) to avoid such dangerous ground. They have apprehended that a social concern pleaded in the name of religion implies only too often a flight from the other-worldliness of an authentic Christianity. This attitude is, as I say, understandable, but if it is persisted in the results will be deplorable. I hope it is not impertinent to ask whether what was undoubtedly begun as an effort after a renewed fidelity may not in its turn pass into an escapism not unlike that which it was first sought to avoid (193).

Like Barth, Reckitt was concerned about theology’s temptation to over-identify with secular politics. In fact, this was his diagnosis of the early Christian socialist movement. The Christian socialists had uncritically aligned themselves with a questionable sociology and in so doing had eventually bracketed a catholic reading of the social. However, the solution is not to fall into the opposite error of abandoning all forms of extra-ecclesial forms of authority, science, or sociology, as Reckitt makes clear above.

Some sixty years after Reckitt, Sarah Coakley’s first Gifford lecture highlights at least one “deplorable” result of forgoing the social in favor of inter-ecclesial debates. Though rather than the social proper, Coakely turns to the unfashionable topic of natural theology, much derided by a host of prominent Gifford lectures including Barth, MacIntrye and Hauerwas.

Rather than shying away from the questions of natural theology, Coakley looks to Adam Gifford’s original task in her attempt to reinvigorate theology’s relationship with science. Coakley argues that theologians have grown squeamish when attempting to answer universal questions, particularly when it comes to science, now considered coterminous with atheism. The disastrous result has been to regulate theology to one side of the debate and science to another. Theology by default then slips into escapism or some modified version thereof (what she calls the “lazy no contest” position). As such, theology ends up underwriting the church/state, fact/value or faith/reason distinction, regarding God as an external add on.

Still, Coakley agrees with the critiques of Barth, MacIntrye and Hauerwas. Her task rather is to focus on Gifford’s questions, which “were the right ones, the big ones, and they don’t go away.” About her return to what she calls a non-correlationist account of natural theology’s methods, Coakley writes:

It is not because I spy something that vaguely reminds me of the Christian so that I cling to it uncritically as a desperate means of new legitimation for the world of theology in an age of ‘secularism’; that would indeed by the kind of sell-out to scientific fashion that Barth or Hauerwas would quite rightly abhor, and it would almost certainly lead to an unthinking acceptance of some reductive metaphysical moves in secular science that could entirely undo my own theological project. No, it is because I see that evolutionary theory itself is in a state of creative implosion, of re-examination of its own theoretical and metaphysical underpinnings, that I seek to listen to it afresh in search of truth, but no less also with a profoundly critical probing of its own fundamental narratives of meaning so as to open up afresh the question of God… I do not either, as a theologian, simply abandon my theological commitments at the door in such an engagement with secular science and philosophy. Instead I strategically dispossess myself to the Spirit’s “blowing where it will” into all truth.

More provocatively still, Coakley states in a podcast about her lectures that if Barth were alive today he would agree with her. The task today is to proceed “like a kind of upside-down Barth”; to reincarnate natural theology in all its Christological and pneumatological glory.

Extending to the larger picture that emerges from Coakley’s Gifford lectures and Reckitt’s observation, theology has far more to offer the world than simplistic dichotomies. When thinking about social and scientific questions, we are not limited to the vying poles of constantinianism vs. Anabaptism or faith vs. reason – all on the basis of the Trinity and the deifying work of the Son. As Coakley writes, “God, the Holy Spirit, is the perpetual invitation and lure of the creation to return to its source in the Father, yet never without the full – and suffering – implications of incarnate Sonship.”