Is A “Theology Of The Sciences” Even Possible?

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philisophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God. – Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, p. 175

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.  Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. – Sam Harris, “An Atheist Manifesto”

[Creationist Ray] Bohlin managed to recruit state board members to join in his quest, even going so far as to claim that removing any mention of creationist opinions in science would somehow prevent students from being able to ask questions in classes. (A false claim). He further claimed the majority of the committee was engaged in “a quick and concerted effort by the majority of the committee to remove the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).”

“I don’t advocate for any kind of creationism to be taught in the school. That does not belong in the TEKS. I’m simply concerned about the fair representation of the evidence for evolution,” said Bohlin. – Sarah K. Burris, “Creationists attack Texas education board for trying to eliminate junk science from school textbooks”, Raw Story, October 5, 2016

The theological principle which I accept without a rival has made it almost compulsory that I should first present the doctrine of the work of the Creator as such in the old-fashioned form of a radical exposition of the contents of the first two chapters of the Bible. This exposition is the kernel of the present book. I realise that it is in many ways strange, for I had not myself expected that this would be the result of a closer consideration of these passages and the problems involved. It will perhaps be asked in criticism why I have not tackled the obvious scientific question posed in this context. It was my original belief that this would be necessary, but I later saw that there can be no scientific problems, objections or aids in relation to what Holy Scripture and the Christian Church understand by the divine work of creation. Hence in the central portion of this book a good deal will be said about “naive” Hebrew “saga”, but nothing at all about apologetics and polemics, as might have been expected. The relevant task of dogmatics at this point has been found exclusively in repeating the “saga”, and I have found this task far finer and far more rewarding than all the dilettante entanglements in which I might otherwise have found myself. There is free scope for natural science beyond what theology describes as the work of the Creator. And theology can and must move freely where science which really is science, and not secretly a pagan Gnosis or religion, has its appointed limit. I am of the opinion, however, that future workers in the field of the Christian doctrine of creation will find many problems worth pondering in defining the point and manner of this twofold boundary. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine Of Creation, Part 1, pp. ix-x

Michaelangelo's The Creation Of Adam, detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Michaelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam, detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

The central faith-claim of the Christian Church is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. This particular claim is perhaps the most radical statement ever made: It says everything there is to know about God, who God is, what kind of God this God of Jesus Christ is, the state of humanity in its relationship to God and its mutual interrelationships, how best to live one’s life, and whether or not death is to be feared or considered part of our broken yet healing creation. The claims of the Christian Church are, quite literally, life and death for those who make them. Far too comfortable in our middle-class “religion” of reassurance, we forget that, in the words of the late Rev. Dr. William Homes, “to live is to risk”.

The bulk of the Christian proclamation should remain focused upon this particular point. It must stress the grace and love that is the beating heart of that proclamation. That this is both confessional and pastoral should be obvious; it is confessional because this is the God to whom we give testimony, and it is pastoral because this beating heart gives new life to those who hear it and believe. The whole liturgy of the Church focuses upon grace and love, and we who go forth from worship have this new heart beating within us.

And yet . . .

Buried within the central proclamation is the confession that this “world” – really everything from quasars to elementary particles, gas giants circling other stars and your pet cat – is the product of the creative act of love of our prodigal God. This faith statement – God created the heavens and the earth – seems both pretty simple and straightforward. Alas, as the natural sciences have pushed further and further what is theorized concerning both the beginnings of our Universe and its constituent properties, that simple faith claim sounds as if it is in direct conflict with our best theories concerning cosmology and the origin and development of life here on Earth.

And yet . . .,

Here in the United States (of all places) scientific knowledge is under attack on an unprecedented scale. Everything from medical science, genetics and food science, through the physics and chemistry of the earth’s atmosphere and climate, to those perennial arguments over the theory of evolution is questioned, has groups organized to protest both the reality of scientific understanding and the growth both of that understanding and various technological benefits from genetically engineered foods and vaccines to the teaching of evolution in public schools. The nation that has both pioneered and benefited from scientific research and the application of that research to technologies that benefit us routinely ridicules basic research, denies scientific theories that have yet to be disproved even in some small detail, and now even has an anti-science advocate – “Dr.” Jill Stein – running for President. These attacks upon the most successful method we humans have yet developed for figuring out how the world works and helping us live better, healthier lives should be of concern to anyone who continues to benefit from all that science and technology has offered us as a species.

We in the Christian churches should be as concerned as the rest. One of the first things we should acknowledge is that the ability to figure out our world and how best not just to survive but thrive on it is indeed a very good gift from a loving God. Just as we recognize the entirety of Christian Doctrine exists within the central proclamation of the churches, we should also acknowledge that “good gift” of understanding is part and parcel of the particular Universe in which we find ourselves. A Universe capable of the kind of relatively stable biochemistry capable of becoming alive would, it should be obvious, endow that life with the ability to understand that Universe and so survive within it. Our rationality, that particular habit of considering evidence in order to grasp particularly important information regarding our world, is a direct result of the kind of Universe in which we live.

For there to be some kind of conflict between science and Christian faith, one would have first to deny that we are creatures endowed with the ability not just to understand but to act upon an understanding of the world so that we can thrive and grow in it. To deny scientific theories, whether it’s about global climate change, the Big Bang, the chemical theories regarding mental illness that have produced successful drug treatments, or the theory of evolution, is to deny that God has made us as we are – as creatures able to learn stuff and use that learning. A denial of science at any level is, at heart, a denial of faith in the God of Jesus Christ.

And yet . . .

Science’s success has led some scientists (and non-scientists) to come to accept it not just as the best method yet of figuring out our world and how best to live in it; they believe the very existence of science both as a method and as a body of knowledge excludes other ways of understanding. Not just religion in general and the Christian faith in particular (because both Christianity and science are European phenomena what points of contention exist between the sciences and “religion”, by and large, involve Christianity), but a  kind of scientific reductionism across all sorts of human activity from patriotism through individual behaviors and deviance to romantic love can be encountered. Which isn’t to say that science doesn’t have something to say about why it is we human beings prefer the company of those more like us than not, say, or why it is we not only fall in love but some cultures persist in enforcing life-long pair-bonding over and against what seems a far more likely serial mating among the best candidates available. It does have things to say, and should say them.

The problem is, they aren’t the only things that can and should be said about these and other phenomena. When it comes to religion in general, and the claims of any particular faith, science should recognize, first and foremost, that the claims of believers are not and by their nature cannot be addressed as science addresses such matters. This isn’t just a question of “falsifiability”, as only those questions to which a negative answer is at least potentially possible were the only questions worth asking. It is precisely because science and religion, in fact, do not inhabit the same sphere at all. They do not address the same specific questions; they do not attempt to answer them using the same tools; they do not offer answers that can be stated interchangeably in the vocabularies of science and religious faith. At heart, the efforts of some scientists and some people of faith to fan the flames of conflict is fundamentally to misunderstand that we are dealing with two distinct vocabularies developed to address distinct issues and problems and offer solutions to those problems in terms that exist wholly within the distinct vocabularies used.

The Christian faith has nothing much to say at all about “the reality” of the Big Bang, biochemistry, or the evolution and development of life. Science has nothing much to say about the revelation of the God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, the salvation of our broken Creation, and the promise of New Life and New Creation to come. In the first case, the only thing Christian theology should do is give thanks to God both for a Universe in which scientific knowledge is possible and that we are creatures so endowed in order to grow and thrive. The only thing science should say about Christian proclamation regarding Creation is that it answers questions that have nothing at all to do with what science teaches us. To do other than this is, in the end, to devolve into arguments that are, for all intents and purposes, like one German speaker and one Danish speaker arguing with one another in their own languages over which language is better.

So is a “theology of science” even possible? I’m not so sure it’s as much a question of its possibility – for surely we humans are ingenious enough to come up with all sorts of things that sound convincing – as a question of its scope and place within the larger concerns of Christian proclamation. At best it is and should always be considered a peripheral matter, sitting at the edge of the proclamation of creation. Recognizing both that science both as a body of knowledge and a way of coming to that body of knowledge exist should be yet more reasons for praising our good and loving God. Beyond that, however, I guess I’m not sure what more can or should be said.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.

Howdy! Thanks for reading. Really. Be nice and remember - I'm like Roz from Monster's Inc. I'm always watching.

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