A Theology of Science?

It has become common to study the science of religion and as a result the science of theology. Religious practice is a social construct amenable to study in the context of sociology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology. Presumably religion exists because it has some survival benefit for the human race. Religion/theology is a valid subject for scientific study, but to leave it at this misses a very important element of theology, whether Christian or not.

Ernest Rutherford (who discovered the “nucleus” in a famous experiment with alpha particles and gold foil and thus set the stage for the atomic theory of matter) famously noted: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” (See here for more details on the attribution.) While many will take offense at this, there is an important truth here. Ultimately physics is a search for a grand unified theory of everything based on the principle that the natural world is comprehensible and describable. In a real sense it encompasses all other subfields of science unless we tack on a restrictive definition of physics. Chemistry, biology, and psychology, as examples, are aiming for coherent unified truth, not simply classification and local truth. In any event, science is not simply a collection of disjointed facts, the practice of science involves a quest for intelligibility in the material world.

What then is a theology of science? Tom McLeish explores this idea in the penultimate chapter of his book Faith & Wisdom in Science. This is where he has been headed all along and it is worth mulling over the ideas carefully in a couple of posts. In this first we will reflect on the concept of a theology of science and then move to dig deeper into details.

In Christian circles the analog to Rutherford’s quote is the idea that theology is the queen of the sciences. If science involves a quest for knowledge, a grand theory of everything, then theology is at the pinnacle as God is the source and center of everything that exists. More broadly, one’s worldview provides a grand unified theory of everything – thus the quest for knowledge must include or even begin with a metaphysical worldview. Thus, in some sense, theology is the queen of the sciences whether one is theist, spiritual, or atheist. We are in a quest for truth.

So as a Christian I can talk about a theology of science. As Tom McLeish puts it:

A ‘theology of science’ generates a radical viewpoint, if a highly unfashionable one, but with the great advantage that it is self-consistent. The theological story that starts with a creating person needs to be able to speak about everything, if it is to speak about anything. In particular it can speak about the physical universe, and of human minds, and of the relationship between the two. It can speak of how that special story, the one we now call ‘science’, belongs within the larger theological narrative of creation, pain, and healing. It can also talk of what being a human in an inhuman universe means, and it can do so by referring to the categories of value and purpose that constitute its natural vocabulary. (p. 170)

From my perspective, the idea of a theology of science is misused when it is applied to the subjugation of science to Scripture, or more accurately to a specific interpretation of Scripture. The concept of theology as the queen of the sciences doesn’t mean that we have to worry about a flat earth, a vault above, the age of the earth or universe, a geocentric solar system, or even the special creation or evolutionary diversification of life. A theology of science is grounded in a creator and in a value-laden story. This post began with a brief introduction to the science of theology (or religion). As McLeish goes on to point out, a ‘theology of science’ benefits my science as well as my theology.

We need just as much a theology of science as we do a science of theology. This is true whether or not one personally chooses to explore life from a theistic, atheistic, or agnostic point of view, although a theistic belief in God adds an urgent edge to the task. A project that employs an ‘of’ to conjoin science and theology rather than an ‘and’ works self-consistently with, and within, both activities. We need to know why we are doing science, not just in anthropological or neurological terms, but where science belongs in the stories we tell of our history, hopes, values, and ultimately of our purpose. Those are theological stories. (p. 171)

There is a meaning to the pursuit of science that meshes well with the story we find in Scripture, especially in the wisdom hymn of Job, in the Psalms, in Isaiah and Jeremiah, and in the various creation passages. The study of God’s creation is a worthwhile pursuit, using God-given facilities of reason and helping to shape order out of chaos. Some of the chaos is in the unsatisfying piecemeal collection of facts. This is slowly being ordered into a coherent narrative demonstrating the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ as Eugene Wigner put it (see here). We are called to wisdom and understanding.

Science and faith are not “non-overlapping magisteria” as suggested by Stephen Jay Gould. This is an inadequate view of the world because it separates the whole into two distinct pieces and thus eliminates the possibility of a grand unified theory of everything. Biology without chemistry and physics is a collection of facts. Chemistry without physics, the same. We understand the structure of the periodic table and the reactivity of the elements because we know physics (the concepts of mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum theory, statistical mechanics, relativity). We begin to understand the intricacies of the cell and of organisms because we know chemistry now applied to complex aggregations of molecular and material structures as well as the principles of physics. We understand the world through both the material processes active in the universe and through the story that connects those facts with value and purpose. As a Christian I see a grand story that frames the material processes we we seek to understand.

This is enough for one day. We will continue with McLeish’s discussion of a theology of science in the next post on the book.

Do you have a theology of science?

What does it mean to integrate theology and science?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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