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Monday, 8 June 2009

Science and Theology as … Lovers?

The relationship between science and theology is undoubtedly complex. If we were to personify these disciplines, how should we characterize this relationship?

Enemies (Strike 1) …
Science and theology are often thought of as enemies. And the way the relationship plays out in our modern culture seems to lend some credence to this characterization. Some scientists would like the exterminate theology as a respected academic discipline; some Christian theologians would like to invalidate entire branches of modern science.

But this isn’t right. Insisting that science and theology are inherent enemies betrays a lack of thoughtfulness, open mindedness, imagination, or some combination of all three.

Theology as Master of Science (Strike 2) …
Many Christians insist that scientific conclusions must be restricted to boundaries defined by orthodox Christian theology. That is, science is free to investigate God’s creation as long as its conclusions are in accordance with our understanding of theology. For these Christians, theological conclusions trump scientific conclusions.

In particular, many Christians want to canonize theology from some bygone era. For example, an ASA mailing list writer recently commented that:

I am for the most part uninterested in any theology written after about 1600-1700 anyway, except to the extent that it helps to revive and explain for modern audiences the pre-modern tradition of theological thought.
I understand the sentiment of this writer given that much “Christian” theology developed in recent centuries has been more damaging than helpful. But to insist that our orthodox theology needs no re-articulation, is to insist that we completely understand God. As George Murphy responded to the writer above:
… Christian theological tradition [must] be taken seriously in current theological work. But we’ve learned a lot about the world & humanity in the past few centuries, including the knowledge gained by the natural sciences. [These sciences] can’t dictate our theology but need to be taken seriously if we believe that the world that science explores is indeed God’s creation.
Science as Master of Theology (Strike 3) …
Others would like to establish a new religion based on science. Michael Dowd calls himself an “evolutionary Pentecostal” and proclaims the gospel of “Evolutionary Christianity”. For Dowd, it seems that evolutionary science is the central Truth and that our theological conclusions should be developed based on this truth. For Dowd:
Reinterpreting the core elements of our faith: Original Sin, Salvation, the Trinity; the Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus; the Second Coming of Christ, Heaven, Hell, and so on is not only our responsibility, it is our Great Work.
Even a cursory reading of Dowd’s material (eg. See his essay Evolutionary Christianity) shows that his God is more in line with panentheism than theism, and that his theology veers sharply away from orthodox Christianity.

Dowd defends the marriage of science and theology but at a terrible price for theology. This enslavement of theology to science can hardly be considered an ideal relationship.

But this isn’t Baseball …
Fortunately, the science / theology relationship is not governed by the rules of baseball and we are not limited to three strikes. As God showed by bringing back Christ from the dead, hope can never be ruled “out”. The relationship between theology and science does not need to be one of either enmity or enslavement.

Theology and Science as Lovers
Leron Shults has written a beautiful little book called Christology and Science. I am just starting to tackle this book but I suspect it will soon rise to the top of my personal favourites for works that examine the interaction of modern science and orthodox Christianity, possibly on par with Polkinghorne’s Science and Christian Belief and Murphy’s The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.

Shults begins Christology and Science by noting that this is a particularly challenging time for theology:
In every generation Christian theology is faced with the task of articulating the intuitions of the biblical tradition about the significance of Jesus Christ in a way that engages its own cultural context. The task feels especially daunting and dangerous in the context of interdisciplinary dialogue with contemporary sciences such as evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology and physical cosmology, which question the coherence and plausibility of many traditional Christological formulations.
Challenging and daunting, but also very rewarding. On the relationship between theology and science, Shults states:
I would like to suggest an interpersonal metaphor that is rarely considered appropriate (if considered at all) for the interaction between the disciplines [of theology and science]. Is it possible that we might think of theology and science as lovers?
On careful reflection, this analogy might be particularly apt for the relationship between two disciplines that are fumbling towards mutual understanding. Here’s what Shults says about the Lovers metaphor.
It provides us with a way to make sense of our mutual fear and fascination. We fear existential encounters that we cannot control. This inability to control the other, which evokes trembling in the presence of the beloved, is ingredient to true love. The risk of losing control is part of the delightful experience that binds lovers together.
In the discussion that follows, Shults notes that “Lovers are fascinated by their differences” and that “Lovers who are interested in learning together may still get annoyed with each other”. This is clearly not an easy relationship. But as most of us know, rewarding relationships are never easy.

It was 15 years ago that Mark Noll wrote “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind”. It is my hope that we Evangelicals may finally be learning to love the mind that God has given us, a mind that is fascinated by both God and his creation.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for the book references.

Allan Harvey said...

I like your 4 categories; another categorization that I found wise was in Richard Bube's Putting it all Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and the Christian Faith.

I wrote a review of Bube's book not long after it came out.

Pstyle said...

I'm on my second reading of Shults. The analogy of lovers stood out strongly both times and I'm a fan of his thinking.