Saturday, February 23, 2013

Relating Science and Theology: The Essence of Scientists in Congregations

The Scientists in Congregations (SinC) grantees

As we launch this new blog to support and describe the work of Scientists in Congregations, I needed to start with ways to relate theology and science and why we think it can be done. (This is adapted from my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science.)

Science and theology certainly continued to tussle in a variety of forms in the following centuries, but it never was a simple conflict. The commentator on science, Margaret Wertheim, has concluded, “The idea of a long-standing war between science and religion is a historical fiction invented in the late nineteenth century.” 

Isaac Newton, the key figure in formulating the “modern” scientific worldview combined a rigorous Christian faith with the most penetrating mind to come along for centuries. Admittedly, Newton strayed from orthodoxy on certain theological points—especially the Trinity—but remained committed to the Bible throughout his distinguished career. As he remarked, “No sciences are better attested than the religion of the Bible.”

Still, the contemporary Nobel laureate Stephen Weinberg—like many other scientists—propagates the common notion of the incompatibility between religion and science with force: “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.” But this conflict model oversimplifies a more varied historical interaction between these two disciplines. Consider another example: the nineteenth-century scientist and Christian, Clerk Maxwell, whose theories gave inspiration to Einstein’s special relativity, “Happy is the man who can recognize in the work of today a connected portion of life, and an embodiment of the work of Eternity.”

In this spectrum between outright oil-and-water and a chummy friendship, a number of points exist. The doyen of the study of science and theology, Ian Barbour, has set out a clear typology for four ways that religion and science have interacted.

  1. Conflict—each sees the other as an enemy and attacks its adversary. Many conservative theologians understand that science is “godless” (as some in fact is) and set their attack accordingly. On the other side, scientism defines all reality by what can be discovered scientifically. That approach obviously does not leave much room for faith.
  2. Independence remains perhaps the most popular approach. Galileo is sometimes quoted in this regard: “Religion tells us how to go to heaven. Science tells us how the heavens go.” (Galileo had more to say as I will note below.) The independence model has the virtue of maintaining a proper freedom for both science and theology. It may, however, lead to the conclusion that science deals with “the real world” and religious faith can be placed on the same level as belief in Santa Claus or unicorns—comforting, but deluded.
  3.  Dialogue, where the two disciplines sit down and calmly discuss their respective insights. This is polite coffee talk—quite enjoyable, but no one is brought to changed opinions after the conversation. Many science-theology specialists find this to be the dominant, and often frustrating, pinnacle of interactions at most conferences. It ultimately splits the one world God has made into air-tight microworlds.
  4. Integration has as its goal a real learning on both sides. In this case, there is a give and take, where real transformation of thought can occur. Curiously, Galileo offers an excellent example of this approach. He understood his work as necessary for maintaining the truth of Christianity so that faith would not be wedded to bad science. For this reason, Galileo looked to God as his final Arbiter after his infamous trial: “He knows that in this cause for which I suffer, though many might have spoken with more learning, none, not even the ancient Fathers, have spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the Church than I.”

As a rule, I seek to move toward the integration of theology and science. Nonetheless, in order for the two disciplines really to integrate, one needs to admit the similarities and differences in their approaches. Sometimes, as their respective research programs develop, dialogue may be the apex of their interaction at any moment and integration remains a goal on the horizon.
How then to move toward integration? First of all, both disciplines prize humility—the fact that we do not know everything. There is an incompleteness to our knowledge, but a confidence that we can learn something. Einstein definitely knew this virtue, “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality is primitive and childlike and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” The Bible says it another way, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Unfortunately both Christianity and science have often proceeded without humility.
Secondly, there is a strong historical relation between the growth of science and monotheistic religion. Put simply, science has grown historically in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic countries. Why? All traditions—and I will speak primarily as a Christian—speak of God’s rationality and prize the intelligibility of God design universe. Copernicus stated simply, “ The universe has been wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator.” Scientific research relies on the order, coherence, and comprehensibility in nature. In fact, the development of modern science is related to the idea that nature has a pattern or “laws,” which can be discerned through observation. The Nobel laureate, Charles Towne, in a lecture on the relationship between the Christian faith and modern science, summarizes this connection: “For successful science of the type we know, we must have faith that the universe is governed by reliable laws and, further, that these laws can be discovered by human inquiry.” Conversely, to believe in the intelligibility of the universe without this basis is an amazing leap of faith.
In this respect, science and theology have much to learn from one another.  Albert Einstein provided one brilliant summary:  “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Pope John Paul II formulated another: “ 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.”

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