Science and Theology 1 – Science as Context

Over the course of the next month or so I am going to look at three recent books by The Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne. The first, Theology in the Context of Science, I will begin today. The other two,  Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible and Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, will follow.

Dr. John Polkinghorne was a very successful scientist, an expert and creative theoretical physicist involved in the discovery of quarks. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University before he resigned to study for the Anglican priesthood. He has since been a parish priest, Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall Cambridge and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. After retirement he continues to write, think, and lecture about the interface between science and faith. I’ve read and commented on a couple of his books – Quarks, Chaos & Christianity and Belief in God in an Age of Science – in previous posts (you can find a list of posts in the Science and Faith Archive on the sidebar.)

The question asked in Theology in the Context of Science is straightforward.

Can science and the study of science and religion provide a context for theology?

We’ve entered an age where greater awareness of the world, understanding of history, and sensitivity to power structures and cultural influences has led to contextual theologies. There are streams of thought referred to as liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, South-East Asian theology, African theology, and more. At their worst these various perspectives distort the orthodox Christian faith, throwing the Bible under the bus for the sake of a cultural correctness and situation. At their very best these various perspectives enhance our understanding of the depth and richness of the orthodox Christian faith and of the power of God’s work in his creation.

Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that science is another context for theology that can enhance and inform our Christian faith.

I believe, therefore, that the field of science and religion should be treated as another form of contextual theology, rather than its role being seen simply as that of providing useful information which can be referred to as seems necessary – usually rather briefly and often as part of an apologetic exercise. The dialog between science and religion can rightly seek to contribute to creative theological thinking itself, in complementary relationship with other forms of contextual theology. (p. xii)

Do you think science should provide a context for theology?

The first and perhaps the most important point is that all theology is contextual theology. There is no such thing as objective, detached, theology.

All theology is done in a context. The accounts that the theologians give us are not utterances delivered from some lofty detachment, independent of culture – views from nowhere, as it were – but they are all views from somewhere, offering finite and particular human perspectives into the infinite reality of God. Each such perspective not only offers an opportunity for insight, but is also open to the danger of imposing limitation and distortion. Specificity of context will make some aspects of the divine will and nature more readily accessible to theological recognition and understanding, while at the same time hiding others from easy view. (p. 1)

Context is not a new problem or complication for theology. All theology has been contextual from the beginning of God’s interaction in relationship with his people. Paul wrote from his context, the early church fathers wrote from their context, … as did Augustine, Thomas, the reformers, and as do the liberation theologians of today. Sometimes the context is incidental to the theological perspective, but at times it is deeply entwined. Augustine was heavily influenced, Dr. Polkinghorne suggests, by the neo-platonism of his day. This formed his theology while not completely determining it. We better understand Augustine if we understand his context.

Dr. Polkinghorne’s proposition (or my paraphrase of it) is that in our day and age science forms an important context for theology. Science is not the religion of the 21st century – but a theology that ignores, or even worse denies, the revelations of modern science will fall short in its attempt to understand and explore the nature of God.

Since God is the ground of all that is, every kind of human rational investigation of reality must have something to contribute to theological thinking, as the latter pursues its goal of an adequate understanding of the created world, understood in the light of the belief that the mind and purposes of the Creator lie behind cosmic order and history. Every mode of rational exploration of reality will have an offering to make. (p. 9)

Science as a context for theology. Dr. Polkinghorne interacts, sometimes critically, with the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German Lutheran theologian,  as he begins the discussion of science as a context for theology. He also interacts to a lesser extent with Thomas Torrance. There are four important points about the context of science that can be summarized from this discussion.

1. There is no separation of endeavor – science to the material world and religion to the moral sphere. Theology doesn’t dictate what science must conclude. Scientifically posable questions will have scientifically stateable answers, but not all significant questions are scientific questions. Even in the nature of time and the nature of casuality there are issues that transcend the scientific – a topic Dr. Polkinghorne will return to in a later chapter.

2. Science pursues the mind of the creator. Science is, in pure form undistorted by ideology, an effort to understand and explain the nature of the world around us. It has empirical and theoretical facets – but the purpose of both the theoretical and the empirical is to understand what actually is, that is reality. For a Christian science endeavors to understand the nature of God’s creation. There is no agenda beyond this. The activity of science is, Dr. Polkinghorne suggests, “an aspect of the imago dei.” It is a human encounter with the mind of the creator.

3. Science is provisional. All good scientist know and understand this. There must be a realization that different aspects of scientific understanding are provisional. The models of deterministic mechanics following Newton may have played a role in the growth of deism and atheism – as well as in the idea of design in natural theology.

The twentieth-century demise of mere mechanism gives us a salutary reminder that there is nothing absolute or incorrigible about the context of science. It necessarily shares in the provisionality that must to a degree characterise all human knowledge. Recognition of this fact should make us appropriately cautious, but it should not be allowed to induce rational paralysis. At any given time, human beings have to make the best use of the sources of insight that are at their disposal. (p. 13 emphasis mine)

Attaching metaphysical meaning to some scientific concept, be it deterministic mechanics in the nineteenth century or the openness of quantum theory in the twenty-first, must be an loose position. We are seeking to understand the work of the creator – but there is no guarantee that we have reached that understanding yet.

4. Beware of misunderstandings. It is also clear that much theological interaction with science has relied too heavily on conceptual misunderstandings and seeming verbal parallels. Pannenberg – especially in his discussion of the importance of inertia, fields, and contingency – can be faulted for both an inadequate understanding of some of the concepts he used, and a failure to appreciate the provisionality of some of the concepts.

Thomas Torrance had a better understanding of the science – but he relied rather heavily on experts, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and even Albert Einstein, who in the words of Dr. Polkinghorne “represent the final flowering of classical physics.” As surprising as it may seem to some to see Einstein so classified, his life-long opposition to quantum theory and his quest for some added piece that would restore objective causality to the quantum description of the world was anchored in his classical view.

Concluding remarks. This has been a rather academic start to the discussion of theology in the context of science. The chapters that follow will deal with somewhat more concrete topics: The nature of human knowledge and communication; the concepts of time and space; the nature and value of persons (evolution comes in to this one);  providence, and relationality; motivated belief for the Christian faith; and eschatology – the purpose and end of it all.

In what way can and should science form a context for our theology?

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