Science is a branch of theology.

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I’ve been doing some thinking about science and religion recently. There are a number of reasons for this. The immediate cause was a request from the weekly Bible study group at one of my churches to run a short series exploring issues of faith and science. These issues have arisen repeatedly during other series of discussions and we felt it was time to approach them more directly and thoroughly.

This was opportune because I’ve reading quite a bit of the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg who has some very interesting things to say on this question (my reading of Pannenberg was in turn prompted by writing a review for the journal Theology in Scotland of a work on ecclesiology heavily influenced by him which made him sound indispensable, which I have come to think he is).

Finally, my initial intellectual formation was heavily scientific (I studied scientific disciplines exclusively between the ages of 16 and 20) and followed by immersion in a philosophical tradition (Hegelianism) that aimed at an integration of all knowledge into a seamless unity, rejecting any attempt to rigidly separate domains, for example, of facts and values. For this reason the apparent difficulties of integrating scientific and theological ideas has been a source of embarrassment to me since my conversion, in my 30s, to Christianity.

It has been a delight, therefore, to find what a lot of really interesting work has been going on in this area over recent years. Not all of it is entirely to my taste but I have found a great deal to like. I have been particularly drawn to the work of Nancey Murphy who is both an ordained Christian minister and someone who identifies primarily as a philosopher although she is also a theologian. Murphy’s work can be seen, in some respects, as a reconstruction of some of Pannenberg’s insights about the relationship of science and theology on the basis of more recent philosophy of science than Pannenberg takes as his starting point.

The developing relationship between science and philosophy of science on the one hand and theology on the other has been enabled by new thinking on both sides of this pairing. The ways in which scientific theory understands its object (let’s call it the Universe) on the one hand and the way in which those who try to make sense of the scientific enterprise itself (philosophers of science) understand what science is and how it works have both been undergoing rapid and radical change in the last decades.

At the same time there has been a profound shift in some parts of the theological world towards a new interest in what one might call “natural theology”. For a long time theologians had a tendency not to want to engage too much with science and in the work of the Reformed thinker Karl Barth (whom almost everyone – including at least one Pope – acknowledges to be the most influential and important theologian of the twentieth century) this was made a point of principle. More recently a wave of post-Barthian thinkers, of whom I rate Pannenberg highest, have rejected this rejection of integrating Christianity and the scientific enterprise.

There is a huge amount to say about all of this, and I will be tying to say some of it in my Bible Study sessions and here, but there are a few key general points I would like to make at the outset.

  1. It is increasingly widely recognised that there is nothing inevitable about the scientific method. It was an innovation of the early modern period but, like all innovations, it required certain things already to be in place. Among these preconditions, many historians would now argue, were a set of theological ideas about the orderliness of creation and in particular the existence of universal laws of nature. This basic foundational idea of the scientific enterprise can (and should) be seen as a theological idea. (One of the main theological interpreters and advocates of this idea is Alister McGrath, who holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford – see here for a relevant extract from his book Scientific Theology)
  2. The picture of the Universe that has emerged from the cosmology centred on the idea of the “Big Bang” has led us to a generalisation of the idea of evolution from the field of biology to the whole of science. The Universe is seen as having had an origin and to have undergone very fundamental change since that origin. The possibility that it has a terminus, that our Universe will not always exist is also a genuinely open question in contemporary scientific theory. Elementary particles, chemical elements, planets, stars and everything else we observe are now seen to have emerged from processes within the history of the Universe. This dynamic view of physical reality connects with developments in theology.
  3. For a variety of reasons there is much more interest in theology than there was before the twentieth century in the Biblical view of God’s relationship with Creation being historical and oriented towards bringing about new states of that Creation. The idea that we should think of God as working to redeem Creation, common in both the Old and New Testaments but somewhat foreign to the Christianity of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, became more influential in the twentieth and is on the way to being the consensus view of the twenty-first.

There are then three basic intellectual trends towards: 1) recognising that science needs to presuppose ideas we would recognise as within the domain of theological (although not necessarily demanding any particular wider theological framework); 2) understanding the profundity of the shift in our vision of the nature of reality implied by contemporary scientific theory and; 3) seeing how deeply our conception of God’s basic relationship to Creation is being remade.

These three together provide a moment of tremendous opportunity and many theologians are working to grasp it. Besides those I have already mentioned notable other include John Polkinghorne, theologian and Cambridge professor of mathematical physics, Sarah Coakley, Cambridge Professor of Divinity and former co-Director of the “Evolution and Theology of Cooperation” research programme at Harvard, and Keith Ward, former Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

One preliminary conclusion I have personally come to is that the task for theology is to re-integrate science into itself. The question of the relationship between science and theology should be recast not about their compatibility but about the best way of absorbing science completely into theology. We ought to be setting ourselves the challenge of making theology once again the “queen of sciences”, not by challenging or denying the scientific method but by demonstrating that it is a fundamentally theological enterprise, making the necessary adjustments to our theological frameworks to allow this fully to be true, in ways pioneered by the work of Pannenberg who showed that it is possibly to do this while in no way abandoning the determination to remain “orthodox” in one’s trinitarian Christianity, who indeed showed that it is precisely such a faith that can explore and vindicate the theological bases of scientific thinking.

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