HISTORICAL research suggests that, before the mid-19th century,
the most innovative natural philosophers, as scientists were then
known, were typically not just Christian by default, because
"everyone was back then." Almost two-thirds of the key figures -
people such as Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday - were
It was not until the 1870s that this changed. A need to
professionalise grew, in part to do away with the image of the
country parson who was busier netting butterflies than leading
matins. The word "scientist" was coined, and it took on
anti-clerical connotations. At about the same time, T. H. Huxley,
the man also referred to as "Darwin's bulldog", wrote:
"Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every
It is an ideological fiction, although one that has subsequently
powerfully affected reality. But the situation might now be
changing. The taboo on religious ideas' shaping scientific
investigations seems to be lifting.
WHAT I have in mind is not the broad-brush way in which, say,
the grand narratives of contemporary cosmology are told in order to
evoke a sense of wonder. A taste for the aesthetic, even the
spiritual, is positively required to appreciate the meaning of
watching Professor Brian Cox on top of a mountain, gazing into the
vastness of space, accompanied by stirring music.
Neither am I thinking about the valiant efforts of theologians
to reconcile the bleaker readings of evolution, as meaningless and
bloody, with faith in a compassionate God.
Those activities will continue. But, alongside them, there is a
growing sense in the community of scholars who work on science and
religion that a new phase is emerging.
"The most exciting work in the future looks likely to be
interdisciplinary," explains Michael Welker, Professor of
Systematic Theology at the University of Heidelberg, and one of the
principal players in the field.
Moreover, in place of considering general questions about how
science and religion might relate to one another - whether they
should be in conflict, or operate as "non-overlapping magisteria",
each looking at the world in different ways - focusing on specific
problems seems likely to bring experts in different fields into
ONE example has been explored by the well-known scientist and
theologian, Canon John Polkinghorne. It concerns the difficulty of
accounting for the experience we have of being the same person
yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The challenge arises because, in strictly material terms, we are
not the same collection of atoms over time. Our bodies are
replaced, cell by cell, over remarkably short time-frames. And yet,
for all the biological changes, life feels as if it is continuous.
Everyone, from your mother to a sentencing judge, will treat you as
the same person now as you were months or years ago. Being human
seems to involve an odd mixture of continuity and
Theology comes in because continuity and discontinuity has been
grappled with for centuries, in the effort to understand bodily
resurrection. The discontinuity is the fact that we die. And yet
the resurrection holds out the hope of continuity, too, in a new
life as recognisably the same person.
Some of Aristotle's speculations about the nature of the human
person, explored by Thomas Aquinas, too, might be of use here. He
argued that the soul is the "form of the body". It is a kind of
dynamic pattern or animating basis to which the biological flesh
Compare this with the understanding that is emerging in modern
biology. "What links us together is not matter itself but the
continuously developing, almost infinitely complex,
'information-bearing pattern' carried at any one time by the matter
that then makes up my body," Canon Polkinghorne writes in
Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (SPCK, 2011).
"I believe that it is this information-bearing pattern that is
the human soul."
The ancient notion looks not unlike the modern one - hence the
possibility of fruitful exchange.
IF A new mood of collaboration does unfold, many contemporary
philosophical assumptions might dissolve, Professor Welker says. He
is referring to issues such as the reductionist accounts of what it
is to be human, as if we were gene-driven robots, for example; and
also dualist accounts, as if humans were ethereal minds hovering
within warm bodies.
Professor Welker believes that the anthropological asides of St
Paul might prove particularly useful. The apostle did not have a
systematic approach to the "big questions" that engage us today.
But he does seem to have followed the Jewish intuition that a
multi-dimensional conception of personhood is required if we are to
speak fully about the diversity of human experience.
Hence he drew on a variety of notions, such as flesh, body,
soul, and spirit. "With them, we are better able to speak of the
rich though not chaotic texture of human personhood," Professor
Welker proposes. "Contemporary anthropological research and
biblical studies alike show reductionism and dualism to be far too
In terms of the relationship between science and religion, this
is a big change. No longer would theology be "catching up" with
scientific innovation. Instead, when faced with focused questions
such as what it is to be human, the two would be on a level
Both could contribute to the conversation, and both would have
to recognise the inherent limitations of their insights. Such
epistemological modesty neutralises the fight over which discipline
is the best arbiter of truth - and all in the interests of thorough
and open-minded debate.
Mark Vernon is the author of Love: All that matters
(Hodder Education), which is published this month.