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Relating Science and Theology

Option 1: Conflict

In our culture, most people assume that science and theology must either be in outright conflict or they must occupy two separate worlds.

According to the conflict model, science proves atheism and disproves belief in the God of the Bible. Many Christians accept this view of science and, as a consequence, respond to it by attacking science - or at least that part of science which is most often claimed to lead to atheism, namely the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution by variation and natural selection. They often attempt to replace this ‘atheistic science’ with an alternative, namely ‘creation science,’ or with arguments about ‘intelligent design’.The ‘creation science’ strategy raises several serious problems. As a scientific theory it is broadly out of sink with the rest of mainstream science, such as Big Bang cosmology. As a theology... Unfortunately in the process they have tacitly accepted the claim that science does indeed prove atheism, and it is this claim, and not science itself, which deserves to be their real target. For over a century, theological scholarship in the United States, England and Europe has shown science to be highly compatible with Christian faith.Ref. Welch, Peacocke, Brooke.This fact exposes as fraudulent the claim that Darwinian evolution necessarily forces one to be an atheist, and it invites all Christians to offer their own creative interpretation of God’s ongoing action as Creator of the universe in light of the findings of science.

Option 2: ‘Two Worlds’

Alternatively, many scientists and theologians have attempted to settle the matter by accepting both evolution and Christianity. They claim that science and theology are about totally separate domains of knowledge and practice. Both the methods and the claims of these fields are entirely separable, and that to relate them is to misunderstand and even distort them. For example, science and religion are as different as fact versus value, how versus why, reason versus faith, nature versus God, etc. In recent decades, however, the arguments given in support of this kind of rigid compartmentalization have begun to fail for several reasons:

  • They ignore the actual history of the intricate and two-way relations between theology and science, a history in which theology was infused by the prevailing scientific worldviews and philosophical outlooks and a history in which modern science was born in a distinctively theological climate from which it inherited particular philosophical presuppositions about space, time, matter and causality.
  • The theological climate has recently been shifting towards a renewed and open-ended dialogue with science. Many theologians now agree that theology must in some way come to terms with the cognitive content of the sciences as well as with the importance of scientific method for theology.
  • Finally, many scientists now recognize the fruitfulness of interpreting their theories in a wider intellectual and popular context. Scientists who have no explicit commitments to religion are inviting dialogue with theology.

A Promising New Option: Creative Mutual Interaction.

Is there a third option for relating theological and scientific claims? I believe through mutual, creative interaction both fields can flourish not only by their own, independent standards and criteria but through the new results which can only come through an interaction which respects the integrity of both sides. The process will involve rethinking theological doctrine in light of current science and analyzing scientific theories for inherent philosophical and theological elements.

I believe theologians should be open to a kind of empirical testing or "confirmation" of their work in light of scientific theories and discoveries. This process will allow science to play a fruitful role in shaping, trimming, checking and inspiring the ongoing process of theological research. Here philosophy can act as a much-needed bridge between the fields, so that theological terms can be related to scientific ones and thereby brought into critical interaction with scientific knowledge. For scientists the process will involve an inspection of how the working assumptions in science, whose roots lie in philosophy and theology, actually affect explicit scientific theories and their interpretation of data, and how changes in these assumptions might creatively advance science if their suggestions are tested through the rigors of the scientific, empirical method. The value to both sides will be to find the process creative and stimulating without either side attempting to negate the integrity or flatly reject the claims of the other. Conflicts may arise over specific issues, but the basic process will be one of healthy, mutual interaction. The new approach is nicely summarized by Pope John Paul II: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish."Physics, Philosophy and Theology, p. M13.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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