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Consonances Between Science and Religion

In the God, Humanity and the Cosmos project we have adopted what van Huyssteen refers to as ‘a weak form of critical realismvan Huyssteen, J W, Essays in Post-foundationalist Theology (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Eerdmans, 1997) p51(see critical realism in science and religion). Addressing reality is the goal of the rational explorations of sciences and religions, but thinkers’ confidence as to which elements of their models do refer to real entities will vary across a discipline and over time. To use the metaphor of the maps, our underlying conviction is still that both science and theology are maps of the same world. We might therefore expect that ‘following the coastlines’, as Mary Midgley suggestsMidgley, Mary, ‘Science in the world’, Science Studies (1996) 9 (2), p57 might enable us to see ‘consonances’ - places where the descriptions of reality offered by the two types of mapping seem to show a particularly close relation, when they (to change the metaphor) ‘chime together’. For Ernan McMullin the Christian ‘must strive to make his theology and his ... cosmology consonant in the contributions they make to (this) world-view.’Quoted in Drees, Willem B, Beyond the Big Bang (La Salle, Il.: Open Court, 1990) p26

At once this notion sounds certain ‘warning-bells’, as follows:

i) If science fails to ‘show us God’ by matching a piece of coastline with that drawn by theology, or if a piece of science we took for a sign of God loses its apparent consonance (for an important example see theological responses to quantum cosmology) does that make God non-existent, or less probable?

ii) the claims made by sciences and religions must both be recognised as a function of their cultural contexts, as being in some sense ‘constructed’ by those contexts. So as Drees has emphasised, consonances are also constructs.Drees, Willem B, Beyond the Big Bang (La Salle, Il.: Open Court, 1990) p29

John Polkinghorne has also discussed consonance.Polkinghorne, John, Reason and Reality (London: SPCK, 1991) pp80-84 He is clear that the position is complex in respect of Big Bang cosmology (see Big Bang cosmology and theology). He finds a more rewarding consonance in respect of the physical world being shaped by an interplay between chance and physical law (see law and chance). Concerning eschatology there seems to be no consonance - scientific cosmology predicts that the universe will end in a state devoid of structure or meaning; Christianity cherishes a final hope of redemption.God, Humanity and the Cosmos pp280-82 R.J.Russell calls this an example of dissonance.Quoted in Peters, Ted, ‘Theology and natural science’ in The Modern Theologians, ed. D. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) p662.

In our view Ted Peters has assessed the situation correctly when he writes: ‘“Consonance” in the strong sense means accord, harmony. Accord or harmony might be a treasure we hope to find, but we have not found it yet. Where we find ourselves now is working with consonance in a weak sense - that is - by identifying common domains of question-asking.’Peters, 'Theology and natural science' in The Modern Theologians, ed. D. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) p652

Indeed even if we find from time to time glints of the ‘treasure’ we may not be able to glimpse them for long, since both the sciences and theology move on. Even McMullin, an early proponent of consonance, recognised that it would be ‘in constant slight shift.’Quoted in Drees, 1990, 26

What consonance often seems to mean in practice is that theology is asked to redraw its map in order to fit its coastlines to new scientific understandings.A good example is the doctrine of the Fall, see God, Humanity and the Cosmos pp169-70The scientific map-makers seem to be the powerful ones now. But see religion and the rise of science.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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