Not such strange bedfellows

19 February 2016

Science can enhance our theological thinking, says Gillian Straine

SuperStock

Unequal contest: David Slings the Stone by James Tissot (1836-1902)

Unequal contest: David Slings the Stone by James Tissot (1836-1902)

“SUNDAYS are your busy day, eh, Vicar?” I cannot imagine that anyone in full time ministry would have not heard that one before. It may be funny (at least the first time), but it reflects a common idea in our society today: religion happens on a Sunday, and the rest of life, including business, commerce, and science, happens elsewhere, and at another time.

This divided way of thinking is now part of the landscape when it comes to science-and-religion debates, with a loud minority protesting that the two should not be fraternising with one another. This idea not only does a great disservice to contemporary thinking, but it also misrepresents the historical relationship between ideas about God and the study of the natural world.

The history of science and religion has been caricatured by New Atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. For them, the role of science as a contributor to theological thinking has been as a David picking a fight with a Goliath.

Contrary to this, history suggests a complex and nuanced picture, with its beginnings in the Greek period, where science was called Natural Philosophy: the love of wisdom regarding the natural world. The litany of theologians who, over the past two millennia, have contributed to what we now call science includes the Venerable Bede and Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln.

In the 13th century, the works of Aristotle — which included a great deal of what was known about the natural world in antiquity — were rediscovered by the emerging universities of Western Europe, studied by churchmen, and Christianised.

Moreover, there is a continuous story to be told between that work in the High Middle Ages, and the scientific revolution, which in this country was largely led by religious men such as Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon.

Advertisement

Indeed, the question of how religion has contributed to scientific thinking brings to mind the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene in The Life of Brian.

 

LET’S take just a couple of examples from the contemporary scientific scene. The Big Bang cosmological theory is widely accepted. It describes how the universe began in a cataclysmic explosion 13.7 billion years ago, when everything emerged from a single point of immense density at unimaginable temperatures. About ten billion years ago, planets formed; about 3.8 billion years ago, life began on earth.

This description is qualitatively at odds with a literal reading of Genesis 1. There are, however, many ways in which Big Bang science has been interwoven into theological thinking. Whole swathes of theological commentary on the beginning of Genesis, in the Early Church and after, thought that the six “days” might be metaphors for longer periods of time.

Moreover, the Big Bang theory shows that the universe is rational, and there is no scientific reason for this to be the case. The unity, beauty, and comprehensibility revealed in the science have led some to profound theological reflections. For example, the British physicist Paul Dirac (1902-84), writes that “God used beautiful mathematics in creating his world.”

For the scientist, priest, and theologian John Polkinghorne, the rationality of the world and the rationality of our minds are linked in his idea of God as “the common ground of our rationality”. In this theological model drawn from science, God is not there simply to meddle in the workings of each moment, but rather is the background of everything.

Cosmology is a great illustration of a branch of science asking questions that have resonated strongly with the theological quest of understanding God: why is there something rather than nothing? What is the place of chance and randomness? Did our emergence happen randomly, or were we a guaranteed outcome at the time of the Big Bang?

If these are big questions, they are also personal ones: if questions of existence, randomness, and contingency are both scientific and theological, they are also questions for the individual Christian to wrestle with: how does God answer prayer? How does God interact with the natural order? Where is God in the apparent randomness of human life?

 

A SECOND example of science holding a dialogue with theological thinking is in quantum mechanics. Quantum theory demonstrates that it is not possible to know precisely both where a sub-atomic particle is and how it is moving. At its fundamental level, matter itself appears not to be entirely predictable. Since Christians believe that God created all matter, it is a problem how God — omniscient and omnipotent — can have made the universe with such randomness and uncertainty apparently woven in.

Theologically, there have been several responses to this challenge. Perhaps God is the one deciding these unpredictable interactions: God as the certainty in the uncertainty. Others, however, have found this “god of micromanagement” unpalatable; and theology must continue to wrestle to understand a universe which science is revealing to be contingent, with an uncertain future and full of apparently random nature.

Yet others have seen this unpredicatability as what injects freedom into the universe, liberating us from determinism.

For Christians who believe in a loving God, the crux — the sticking point — is that this randomness leads to uncertainty, and possibly to suffering. This was brought into sharp focus in the debates surrounding Darwin’s publication of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Theology responded with ideas of God being in the process of evolution, and even suffering within the created order.

 

IF ALL this seems grand and complicated, there are two things that we can do in response to these debates. First, we have a duty as Christians to engage with science. Science is the best of what we know about the universe; if we believe that God made the universe, then our theology and faith must reflect the very best that we can know. Publications like the New Scientist offer us a good place to begin.

Secondly, action might be needed in our lives. It might be that you do some theological reflection on an area of science that is of interest to you, whether genetics, fundamental physics, or astrobiology. There are many books on the subject; or, if you would like to explore this area of thought in your parish, there is accessible audio-visual material on faith and science in the films Test of Faith, from the Faraday Institute (www.faraday-institute.org/), and From the Dust, from www.biologos.org.

Nothing should separate us from our own universe, and it could be that God will be at work in us through such enterprises. Consider the work of environmental science, which has clearly shown that humans have perturbed the natural system in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the planet.

The final effects of this are unclear, though they will probably affect the poorest people on the planet most acutely. The Trinitarian view of God highlights the importance of relationship and interdependency, which can be extended to underpin a theology for ecological living. The science has direct ethical outcomes — and, for Christians, theological ones, too.

Advertisement

Many working scientists who are Christians would deny that they leave their beliefs at the door when they go into their laboratory. Indeed, scientists frequently speak of the wonder and awe into which science leads them; and it is in this vein that we should all enter the debates between science and religion.

Science studies God’s world, and offers us not only an opportunity to learn more about God and ourselves, but inspires us to praise the creator of the universe, and to serve God in caring for his wondrous creation.

 

The Revd Dr Gillian Straine is a writer, and the author of Introducing Science and Religion: A path through polemic (SPCK, 2013).

Forthcoming Events

7 March 2019
Theology Slam Live Final | London
Three young theologians present their thoughts on a key contemporary issue. Join in our Q&A before the judges choose the 2019 Theology Slam champion.  Book tickets.

8-10 September 2019
The Festival of Preaching | Oxford
A varied programme of worship, lectures and workshops. Speakers include Kate Bruce, Brian McLaren and Nadim Nassar. Book tickets.

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read twelve articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)