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A Christian Theology of Science by Paul Tyson

by
21 October 2022

This theologian misses a trick on science, says Andrew Davison

MANY of the most valuable theological avenues for thinking about science come from philosophy and history. We are in luck, since Paul Tyson’s expertise lies precisely there. Philosophy and history are the focus of this bracing, pugnacious book.

Tyson’s dissatisfaction with existing writing on this topic is clear from the start. His countering vision of what a Christian should make of science is confident, incisive, deeply metaphysical, and resolutely theology-led. He is influenced by figures around John Milbank; indeed, this book might even be called Radical Orthodoxy Does Science and Religion. I am also part of that world; so why does Tyson’s book provoke misgivings? I think that he overstates his case, although in one important matter he doesn’t go far enough.

The book’s most striking feature is a lack of attention to the particular findings or proposals of natural science. Everything is general. This isn’t a book about anything that science shows or investigates, but about how a scientific paradigm shapes the way in which we think: about the status of science as the “first truth discourse” in “secular academic modernity”.

But, told that a story of philosophical corruption and decline marked science since modernity, I wanted to be shown how that played out in practice. I share Tyson’s metaphysical outlook, but most of the colleagues in the laboratories that I have worked in did not. I am not sure that it made a great deal of difference to our work on protein folding or phospholipid metabolism.

The penultimate chapter deals with Adam and Eve. Contemporary natural science is incompatible with belief that the human race is descended directly from one couple. So much the worse for contemporary science, Tyson thinks. We must hold to theology, and not argue on scientific terms, corrupted as he thinks they are. Or, at least, don’t “immediately” jump on scientific bandwagons, he warns. But how “immediately” is that? On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.

In contrast, again, I wanted specifics. If a philosophically degenerate mentality renders evolutionary science untrustworthy, tell us how. Would a scientist who breathed the healthier air of (say) purest Thomism obtain different results from molecular phylogenetics? Would the reductive, rationalist, or materialist scientist date bones differently? Surely not. Ultimately, however, expecting scientific examples from Tyson would be a red herring. He isn’t writing about the practice of science, or the pursuits of scientists; he is writing about what he takes to be the wider intellectual air that we breathe. Someone who is more interested in world-views than what nature is like may find much that is of value here.

Perhaps the cultural mood is different in Tyson’s Australia, but I am not sure everything is as bleak as he makes out. Is our culture simply and only “empiricist, rationalist, and reductive materialist”? Does it always ignore form, and think only of matter? Is it even simply “secular”? There seemed to me to be something Hegelian about the stream of excoriation here, as if the Christian must describe the world around in terms of the strictest possible negation of Christianity, in order to respond in turn with a further outright negation.

Tyson insists rightly that there is no one such thing as “science”. In glossing over scientific particularity, however, he generalises it, after all. We are told that science just is reductive, for instance. But that is wrong. From condensed-matter physics to biology, we find scientists who reject that approach. Here, then, is where Tyson’s confident project does not go far enough. Instead of casting science off, for ignoring perennial metaphysics, we can argue that such a vision is precisely what makes sense of the world, and what makes science work.

The confident theologian should seek out and extend a hand to the scientists who buck Tyson’s analysis of philosophical decline because nature has taught them otherwise, and find common cause in pointing others in that direction. Tyson diagnoses real problems, but he equally misses opportunities.

 

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Starbridge Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge, and Visiting Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

 

A Christian Theology of Science: Reimagining a theological vision of natural knowledge
Paul Tyson
Baker Academic £17.99
978-1-5409-6551-6
Church Times Bookshop £16.19

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