Can Theology Save Science?

Rupert Sheldrake’s banned Ted Talk describing how science has fallen into a dogmatism from which it cannot, at present, extract itself, points to the necessity of a more primary form of thought. I would argue that theology, rightly done, is a mode of inquiry that precedes and grounds our understanding of all else, including science. As Sheldrake describes it, many scientists, generally those with an atheistic, materialistic bent, presume that they “know the truth” while other people – especially the religious – deal in belief.  This naïve presumptuousness is not only a failure to take into account the historical dependence of science on theology it is a failure to understand how science might free itself from itself. According to Sheldrake, scientific dogmatism has halted modes of inquiry which would allow science to progress beyond its reductionist tendencies.  The notion that theology might be a resource to science might seem outrageous to one unaware of the early symbiotic relationship between science and theology.  At the same time, this relationship also points to the sort of theology that has proven fruitful in spawning a scientific mode of inquiry.  Theologies and sciences are not all equal and one way of ascertaining a degraded or superior form of each is to judge the fruitfulness of their interaction.

The Judaeo-Christian understanding of the world is distinctive in its tri-partite God/human/world relationship.  Each element of this three-fold understanding, when it takes its proper place, affirms and grounds each of the other elements. Genesis portrays a human image that is interdependent with God’s original image of himself.  The first pair understand who they are in a series of relationships: God’s image as it is reflected back in the God/man, Male/female, human/creation interrelation. In Scripture, there is no pure reason devoid of the content of the God/Man/World relation.  Reason or wisdom is grounded in the reality of these interrelationships and the failure of thought is marked by privileging one element and doing away with an integrated mode of understanding.

For example, the Cartesian notion that disembodied thought constitutes our likeness to God leads to Immanuel Kant’s focus on pure reason which gives rise to degraded forms of both theology and philosophy of science. In a Kantian system, we are constrained by norms by which we ‘inwardly’ construct our world without appeal to any outward authority.  The human world is theoretically and imaginatively organized by the individual’s intake of sensory information on the basis of reason alone (at least that was what Kant hoped to show).  John Milbank as an alternative, referencing Wittgenstein, pictures human language as acting on the world reflexively to give rise to interiority – “we only reflexively possess an ‘interiority’ as a result of this interaction.”[1]  Milbank claims, “we always arrive too late to disentangle what we have received from what we have constructed or what we have constructed from what we have stumbled upon.” He argues, “if the natural is always already for us the cultural, the cultural never exits the natural and what is ‘fundamental’ for culture remains an attempt to discern what is ‘fundamental’ for nature.”   In the biblical understanding, which Wittgenstein and Milbank reclaim, human subjectivity and interiority arise in an embodied relativity of relationship. God as creator, and in Christ as redeemer, both affirm the reality of creation and demonstrate the relativity of human nature and the natural world.

Thomas Torrance spent a good portion of his life’s work in demonstrating the productive nature of this relativity in the work of Einstein and Clerk Maxwell.  Maxwell, extrapolating from an integrated notion of theology and science, developed his notion of the electromagnetic field, a reversal of usual reductionist notions, describing how lower levels of reality are comprehended only through a top down relational field. The universe is pictured in field theory as a multileveled yet integrated whole. “The universe that is steadily being disclosed to our various sciences is found to be characterized throughout time and space by an ascending gradient of meaning in richer and higher forms of order. Instead of levels of existence of reality being explained reductionally from below in materialistic and mechanistic terms, the lower levels are found to be explained in terms of higher, invisible, intangible levels of reality.”

Christopher Kaiser, has written an extensive history of science as it arises from a relational, creationist perspective.  He demonstrates that God as creator is the necessary ground to the particular inquiry that eventually differentiated itself from natural theology so as to become “science.” The creationist tradition of the Bible contributes several key components, apart from which, science would not have been possible.  Each of these components reflect the primacy of God in theorizing an integration of humans and the world (though Kaiser provides a variety of types of creationist perspectives which either proved fruitful or not in the sort of science which each gave rise to).

Attached to creationism (whatever the type) is the notion that the universe is both readable – following the order or laws of the lawgiver – and that it is accessible through ordinary human thought and language.  The entire universe is subject to a single code of law as there is a single legislator and human reason (reflecting the divine image) is a reflection of the lawfulness.  The universe is, then, open to human comprehension. As Job describes it, “He set a limit for the rain and a course for the thunderbolt, Then He saw it and declared it; He established it and also searched it out” (Job 28:26–27, NASB).  He sets the limit and rules by his word and made it such that it can be searched out and followed. Jeremiah (31:35) describes the fixed order of nature and pictures God as the one who brought about and maintains this order.

In contrast to the unbounded or infinite universe posited in Greek “science” the created universe of the Bible is finite. It was created at a particular moment and has its delimitations. As opposed to polytheistic systems, there is a drive for one comprehensive explanation – not a multiplicity of schools lacking any mutual accountability. At the same time, it is both inexhaustible and comprehensible.  Jeremiah and Job describe a world beyond measure which is at the same time open to observation. As Kaiser has described it, “In contrast to the unbounded or infinite, which was deemed incomprehensible by many of the ancients, the physical world was believed to be literally comprehended by God and hence comprehensible in the objective sense.”  “Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars,    The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name” (Is 40:26).

Aristotle taught that the universe was infinite and that the heavens were composed of a divine element, and that the stars and planets moved by virtue of their being alive and having eternal souls.  In Scripture, because it says that God created the heavens and the earth, it follows that the “heavenly bodies” are neither divine nor comprised of different elements than the earth. As Leslie Newbigin points out, “it is one of the many ironies in the history of the later conflicts between science and religion that when Galileo, as a result of his use of a telescope, decided that the moon was made of the same substance as the earth, he was condemned by the church because the church had meanwhile co-opted Aristotelian philosophy into its doctrine.” This theological failure gave rise to the beginnings of the prolonged break between science and theology.

In biblical teaching, there was the sense that the heavens were animated by the glory of God, not because the stars and planets were divine, but because they bore the fingerprint of the Creator. “Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all stars of light! Praise Him, highest heavens, And the waters that are above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, For He commanded and they were created” (Ps. 148:3-5). The sun, moon and stars move at the command of God: “Who commands the sun not to shine, and sets a seal upon the stars; Who alone stretches out the heavens” (Job 9:7-8). “It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands And I ordained all their host” (Is 45:12). The created universe, heaven above and earth below, is not a chaos of random events but is coherent – lacking in any ultimate self-contradictions. As Newbigin writes, “It is not to be understood in terms of a yin-yang duality as in Far Eastern thought.”  It has an ultimate coherence.

The consistent character of physical laws is grounded in the faithfulness, constancy, and dependability of God’s love (they are not self-grounding). Just as God gave laws to Moses, so too there are laws of nature which He has ordained. As Sheldradke points out, the laws of nature are not absolute or self-grounding.  Under the modern view, the laws of nature may come to be viewed as enslaving and inflexible.  In their original sense, they were viewed as liberating (from chaos) and life-giving. As Kaiser puts it, “The autonomy of nature is thus ‘relative’ in the sense of being relational (to God), as well as in the sense of not being self-originated or entirely self-determined.” As Eric Mascall has described it, “A world which is created by the Christian God will be both contingent and orderly. It will embody regularities and patterns, since its Maker is rational, but the particular regularities and patterns which it will embody cannot be predicted a priori since he is free; they can only be discovered by examination.”  Or as Thomas Torrance maintains, “the constant and ceaseless out-flow of the love of God . . . has no other reason for its movement than the Love that God is, and is therefore entirely without respect of persons and irrespective of their reactions.”

Torrance has described the incarnation as shattering the sort of determinism which Sheldrake has encountered in those who would have him banned.  The Logos is not contained in the universe as an immanent and unbreakable order or a necessary cosmological principle.  This revived Greek notion introduces a divine changelessness and sheer necessity into science. Christ as Logos liberates from the impersonal Greek notion of an imminent absolute law. This Word enters the world, not as part of an inviolable principle but precisely to change up what many would take to be unchangeable. The miracles of Christ demonstrate the relativity of natural law. The relief of the oppressed, the healing of the sick, and the raising of the dead, reveal the personal love of the Creator overrides the laws of the created order.  Christ is depicted as the one who initiated the created order but he is also the one holds it all together. The laws of nature reflect the law giver and in Christ the law Giver demonstrates His control of the natural order.  Christ, and by extension his followers, are able to change the world as the world does not contain its own absolute law.

Techniques, such as medical science, can be directly traced to the monastic effort to extend the healing ministry of Jesus. The rise of Monasticism marked the beginnings of hospital care in the 4th Century. Early Christians believed in the possibility of healing and restoration as demonstrated by the Great Physician. As Newbigin describes this development, “Because of the work of Christ in the incarnation, we may use material means for the advancement of human salvation. The implications of this was that the church did not have to follow the Hebrew tradition of rejecting Greek medicine; instead, it could use Greek medicine in the development of the healing ministry which was to be such an important part of its work in succeeding centuries.”

The very possibility of science and the application of this science in the cause of relieving oppression and sickness flows from creation and incarnation. The incarnation is simultaneously an affirmation of the reality of creation and the relative nature of that reality – in that creation is dependent on the Creator and Sustainer. The potential to manipulate and harness the energy of the world and to continually discover and comprehend its infinite depth, describes the ground theology shares with and provides for science.  Science alone does not have the resources to rescue itself from the contradictory tendency to absolutize the natural world (materialism) or the world of human thought (idealism).  The only way to keep humanity and the world in balance is by way of combining these with the third term – God – and deploying a healthy theology as a means of reintegrating God, humans, and the world in a renewed understanding of science.

[1] He maintains, “this was perhaps the later Wittgenstein’s most crucial message. John Milbank, “Only Theology Saves Metaphysics.”


Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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