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Vol 41 No 2

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Barry Brundell MSC

Denis Edwards

Diana Carrigan

Paul McQuillan

Charles Hill

Kevin Mark


Theology and contemporary science.
Riding the boundaries


SOME YEARS AGO I spent a few months in Paris. One day, when I was wandering through the streets on my own taking in the sights I came into the Place Denfert-Rochereau at the end of the Boulevard Raspail. To my delight I discovered there a monument erected by François-Vincent Raspail bearing the inscription:

To science, apart from which all is stupidity.
To science, the only religion of the future.
Her most fervent and unprejudiced believer
—F-V Raspail

Raspail was a 19th Century chemist and revolutionary. I had read plenty about these people, the out-of-control scientistic rationalists—those who claim that what is not ‘scientific’ is meaningless—but to come face-to-face with the traces of one of them gave me a sensation akin to what paleontologists must experience when they stumble on the fossils of some pre-historic organism. In the 1970s I naïvely believed that rationalism of this kind was truly a thing of the distant past, apart from its revival for a while in the middle years of the twentieth century in the various forms of positivism. I am quite astonished to witness its return in our own day, vigorously promoted at the present moment by Richard Dawkins, described in a recent article as a ‘crusading atheist’ (Luxmore 2007).

The energies of rationalists are mostly directed against religion, faith and theology. Normally theologians are not much interested in responding to this sort of attack, for a variety of reasons, including distaste for nonsense and a desire not to dignify it by treating it seriously. But now, it seems, some reply is called for. Dawkins is selling millions of copies of his books, so he is making an impact.

I had evidence of this recently. Often of a Saturday I walk down to King Street, Newtown, in Sydney, to stock up on vegetables and groceries. My excursion also provides an opportunity for me to read a few T-shirts as a way of informing myself on the street wisdom that week-end. One particular Saturday around Easter time (no less!) a young fellow came striding towards me wearing a T-shirt that read: ‘Christianity is stupid’. ‘Ah-ha!’ I thought, ‘he’s been reading Dawkins!’

I will try not to have my reflections in this article narrowed by an urge to respond to Richard Dawkins, but we may take it that whenever I criticise an example of rationalism, I could routinely add, ‘And all the more so in the case of Richard Dawkins’. He rejects Christian faith as superstition, a mental illness, a cancer that threatens the human race. Religion is ‘the root of all evil’, according to the title of his two-part television program. Dawkins has no understanding of the nature and bases of Christian faith and of theology as a discipline, but at least we can try to remind him of the limits of science, which he does not seem to understand and certainly does not recognise.

I want to offer suggestions, therefore, about the true relationship, insofar as there is one, between theology and natural science. There are a few things I want to take up. They mostly come under the heading of the blindingly obvious, but they appear not to be so to some otherwise seemingly intelligent people, from both the theological and scientific communities.

Let Theology be Theology

My first suggestion is that everyone should leave theology alone. We get demands that theology and religion be scientific in the way that natural science is scientific. Dawkins’ central criticism of theology is that it is ‘not scientific’. Let me outline some comparisons and contrasts between Christian theology and natural science, which will clarify why theology should not be asked to operate on the same principles as the natural sciences.

Theological methods are many, but they have one common goal: that of giving a rational account of Christian faith. The classical definition of theology provided by St Anselm of the eleventh century is ‘faith seeking understanding’. The theologian is a listener to the word of God who interprets it in the light of the articulations of its meaning in the testimonies of tradition and in the lived experience of the Christian community past and present. The theologian reflects the findings of many sub-disciplines, chiefly biblical studies, church history, theological ethics and practical theology. Rationalists think all this is nonsense; they have a right to their opinion and we will fight to the death to preserve that right for them, but we, along with many centuries of theologians, disagree with them.

Scientific methods in the natural sciences, also, are many, because there are many subjects of scientific enquiry. But all natural scientific methods seek explanations that are in specific ways related to evidence obtained by observations, and prescind from—that is, do not accept as scientific—explanations that are not in any way, not even indirectly, empirically verifiable. In natural science obtaining predicted observable results (even if indirectly observable) normally determines the credibility of a theory or hypothesis.

Theology is a systematic exploration of something not seen, nor empirically verifiable, nor logically inferred from observable phenomena, but believed. The believer needs to be able to be assured that his/her belief is reasonable, but he/she cannot prove the truth of the belief. Once something is proved, it is no longer faith, but something established as certain. Therefore it is worth noting that when Dawkins attacks Thomas Aquinas’ five ways, mistakenly calling them ‘proofs’, he shows his ignorance of what Thomas was doing. Thomas Aquinas was offering five typical rational arguments for the existence of God that the believer might find persuasive. They will at least help to assure the believer that it is not against reason to him/her to believe. It would do violence to our human nature to believe something that offends our reason.

Theology and natural science are thus two very different disciplines with very different subject matters or fields of enquiry and very different criteria for the validity of their explanations.

Other Differences

There are other contrasts that we might emphasise between theology and natural science.

• Theology is contemplative; natural science is experimental.

• Theology does not aim at creating new knowledge but at deepening our understanding of what is already known. Theology explores a wisdom entrusted to be conserved. Natural science aims at discovery of hitherto unknown things.

• Theology explores narratives heard and believed, a big story that has been from the beginning. Natural science creates new narratives composed by human agents and tested for validity—if they fail the test they are discarded in favour of other brand new narratives.

• Theological discourse is characterised by poetry, metaphor, symbol, legend, story and myth, as well as history of specific kinds. Natural science discourse is technical, making sparse use of metaphor and other rhetorical devices.

• Theology explains the observed invoking explanations that are independent of observations. In the natural sciences observations determine explanations—the observations determine what scientific theories are permissible.

• For theology old is usually good; for natural science old is usually discarded.

• For theology events are not predictable; for natural science events are to be explained by prior conditions.

Clearly, then, theological explanations are not scientific explanations and are not measured by the same criteria. The methods for doing theology correctly are very different from the methods for doing science correctly. We must not demand that theologians justify their explanations scientifically.

Let Natural Science be Natural

My second suggestion is that everyone should leave natural science alone. There are several ways in which people try to turn natural science into something that it is not.

Some people attempt to create what we may call ‘mystical science’. They try to graft theology onto science. There are a multitude of publications in this category written by people who are impressed by particular scientific explanations and who want to recommend their theology or spirituality by piggy-backing it on those explanations. Or, on the other hand, they are people who want to present some area of scientific explanation as religious or spiritual.

Fritjof Capra is one popular author who did just that. His The Tao of Physics (1975) is a book about finding links between physics and Eastern religions. As I have written elsewhere (Compass 1987/4, 20-21), from talk of ‘comparisons’ between concepts and world-views of physicists and eastern mystics he moves gratuitously to write of ‘parallels’, ‘profound similarities’, ‘profound harmonies’ and ultimately to ‘extremely important connections’. Relying on totally inadequate evidence he claims that physics and Eastern religion are in a deep way one and the same.  

Diarmud O’Murchu in Quantum Theology (1996) is one Christian counterpart to Capra. Jean Guitton and the Bogdonov brothers in Dieu et la science (1991) also relied heavily on marginal speculations inspired by science. Kevin O’Shea dabbled in this kind of writing in his Person in Cosmos. Metaphors of Meaning from Physics, Philosophy and Theology (1995), even though he affirmed (p.201) that it is perhaps best that physics remains physics, philosophy remains philosophy and theology remains theology.

There are several reasons why this kind of speculation is out of order.

First, they are no more than very personal intuitions, even flights of fancy. They do not sufficiently honour the distinctions between natural scientific findings in the strict and only proper sense, and non-scientific speculations that have become attached to them.

Second, they confuse discourses. Concepts, terms and theories belong in contexts. We must not transfer discourses from one domain to another. We cannot helicopter terminology from the natural sciences into theological discourse as though the terms mean the same thing in each discourse.

Science and mysticism are two distinct ways of knowing. The mysticism or religious awe of the scientist begins where his/her scientific activity leaves off. Forcing science and religion to coalesce in any way with claims that they are intimately linked in a common quest, should not be welcomed by scientists who are concerned to uphold freedom of research. The least damage that these ideas could do is to release a cloud of mystic unknowing and imprecision into the laboratories. Nor should anyone who values Eastern mystical traditions or any religious tradition welcome the prospect of such close links with science because scientists have a habit of reassessing their views from the bottom up every so often, making it quite unwise to hitch one’s religious, mystical or theological wagon to any scientific star.

Theologians should state their case with sensitivity for the influential ideas of contemporary Western culture, influenced in many and varied ways as they are by rumours emanating from serious science, but should not get any closer than that.

There is much to be gained by theologians if the strict use of the term ‘natural science’ is insisted upon and if it is clearly recognised that what are not scientific conclusions are not what science tells us; non-scientific assertions need to be argued for on other grounds. This goes for non-scientific conclusions that we might wish to adopt ourselves as theologians, such as the anthropic principle and theories of cosmic evolutionism, as well as for theories which do not meet with our approval, such as the rationalistic and materialistic conclusions drawn from biology by people such as Richard Dawkins.

More radical than the science mystics are the theological imperialists. These try to substitute theology for science. The Creation Scientists are the prime offenders. They claim that the account of creation in the book of Genesis literally understood is science taught by God and therefore to be accepted in place of evolution science. Others seek to impose theology onto science as an attempt to remedy the perceived insufficiency of natural science. The advocates of intelligent design try to do this. Both the Creation Scientists and the advocates of Intelligent Design are demanding that ‘theology’ (I use the term very loosely) be introduced into the science curriculum as science. They want to substitute theological doctrine for the explanations of empirical science.

And finally, there are the scientistic imperialists. They believe that scientific explanations and theological explanations are in competition. True, there have been many instances down the centuries when scientific explanations have been found for phenomena that had been previously given religious explanations. This has been and still often is interpreted as a retreat by religion before the triumphal march of scientific progress. A whole school of historiography flourished at the turn of the twentieth century based on that interpretation of the history of the relations between religion and science. The interpretation has been rejected by scholars (Lindberg and Numbers 1986, Introduction; Brooke 1991). It seriously distorts the picture of the actual relations between science and religion down the ages.

Paul Davies (1990 and 1995) is one scientist who believes theology and science are in competition. Religious truth is for him a series of facts about the universe on the same cognitive level as scientific conclusions. Hence his claim that science offers a surer path to God than religion. He claimed that if one really wants to understand what is going on in the universe, including the ‘fundamental things’ which for centuries remained the province of religion, especially the coming into being of the universe, it is to sciences like physics that one must turn to get the answers (Davies 1990, ix). The famous statement of Stephen Hawking at the conclusion of A Brief History of Time (1988) that we will soon be able to ‘know the mind of God’ is a statement along the same lines. But an earlier passage in the same book shows that someone as intelligent as he finds it difficult to appreciate the difference between the language of science and the language of theology. Hawking tells of a conference on cosmology at the Vatican. He writes:

At the end of the conference the participants were granted an audience with the pope. He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not enquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God. I was glad that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference—the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation. I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo…(p.116)

But when we read the address of Pope John Paul that Hawking was alluding to, we see that he has entirely missed the pope’s point. John Paul simply said that the question of the universe’s beginning is not answered by physics alone, it is a metaphysical and theological question too. (Cf. John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. October 3, 1981.)

Catholic theologians are optimistic about science. And so is the Catholic Church, as was made clear in the Second Vatican Council, e.g.:

…methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are. We cannot but deplore certain attitudes (not unknown among Christians) deriving from a short-sighted view of the rightful autonomy of science; they have occasioned conflict and controversy and have misled many into opposing faith and science. (Gaudium et Spes, 36.)

The final sentence of this quotation was a reference to the Galileo affair as is made clear by a footnote.

The most aggressive scientistic imperialists of our time are biologists and zoologists—Daniel Dennett, for example, and—of course—Richard Dawkins. Basically, these biological materialists claim that evolution theory has made God superfluous. Meaning and morality and all things specifically human are solely products of evolution.

Theologians naturally object that evolution theory does not explain everything. There is more to a human person than matter; there is a spiritual aspect as well. For many centuries the model body-soul was used to express this belief, with the notion that God immediately created and infused the soul into the material body to create a human being. The Aristotelian theory of hylomorphism underpinned the doctrine. This model is not very helpful in an evolutionary perspective. The biblical language is much more flexible, speaking of body and spirit and soul (1Thess. 5:23). The human person for the theologian lives at various levels, material and spiritual. Created in the image of God, the person lives between heaven and earth and is called to communion with God. After death the personal conscious and willing self lives on: if we want to call this self the ‘soul’ we need to understand the word in a way that it is closer to biblical terminology than to any dualistic understanding of body-soul.

Theologising in a way that is sensitive to evolutionary categories, one might say that a human being is born material and is loved into an active spiritual existence by the divine action that envelopes it. This does not entail that the creative action of God takes the form of divine interventions into or changes of direction of the natural evolutionary processes. On the contrary, it corresponds to the top-down causality that is attributed to God the Creator through the rest of the evolutionary process that has produced the marvels of the natural world and the emergence of human beings. On this top-down causality Arthur Peacocke has written at length (Peacocke 1993). But these are theological discussions and hypotheses, and we do not ask that they be incorporated into science. We theologians know our place.

However, since we believe that there is so much more to the human being than matter, even in its most highly evolved states, we reject the incursions of evolutionary materialists into areas that are properly philosophical and theological, for instance into Christian moral  theory or into questions of the meaning and value and purpose of life. Science is neutral on such questions.

So, my finger-wagging response to those from either theological or natural science backgrounds who do not respect the boundaries of their disciplines and those of other disciplines is, in brief: theologians and scientists should not trespass on each other’s territory; theologians and scientists must recognise the boundaries of their own domain and show proper deference to the authority of those who work in another domain. This does not mean that theologians are prohibited from speaking about things scientific, nor scientists about things theological, but it does mean that they each do not invoke their authority in their own fields for claiming authority in the other. There is no transfer of authority across the boundaries and there must be no blurring of the boundaries.

In the normal course these days working theologians and working scientists are not tempted to claim more authority than they have. Some lessons at least have been learned over the past three or four centuries since the Galileo bungle. But not all have resisted the temptation. There are instances of people claiming to be theologians who are guilty of an unwise mingling of divinity with the study of the natural world, a foolishness that Francis Bacon complained of in his Magna Instauratio (1620).

The most significant thing about the resurrection of scientistic rationalism is that, arguably, it is not ultimately about science or theology, but a reaction to the resurgence of religion in secular fields like politics and government. Abuses of religion lead to abuses of science, putting scientists and theologians in conflict. Theologians deplore the abuses, probably more than anyone does. We just wish that people would put the blame where it is deserved—on the extremists of all faiths—and not take it out on us.

Fr Barry Brundell, editor of Compass, taught Theology and Science at the Gregorian University, Rome, in the 1990s. He is an Honorary Visiting Fellow in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at UNSW.



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