Anglican Perspectives: Science and Faith, Class 4

How can science and faith relate: some key theological words

The relationship between science and Christian faith is complex and multi-faceted.  It is important to get it right, since both science and Christianity value truth, and both have important connections to many aspects of contemporary living.   While a popular metaphor is that of conflict, Anglicans Alister McGrath and John Polkinghorne have pioneered a more subtle and hopeful path and produced numerous books on the topic.

Natural theology: reflecting about God from what is knows about the observed world of nature.  Alister McGrath (born 1936) says: “A natural theology, when shaped and informed by the fundamental themes of the Christian tradition – in short, a Trinitarian natural theology – can act as a point of convergence between the Christian faith, the arts and literature, and above all the natural sciences, opening up important possibilities for dialogue, cross-fertilization and mutual enrichment. … Such an approach … is fully capable of confronting the spectrum of complexities of the natural world without intellectual evasion, distortion or misrepresentation.” 

Theologian Thomas Torrance (1913-2007) says (in The Ground and Grammar of Theology): “There is no secret way of knowing either in science or in theology, but there is only one basic way of knowing … We must be faithful to the reality we seek to know and must act and think always in relentless fidelity to that reality.”  Furthermore, “Really to know God means that we must know him in accordance with His triune nature from the start.

Ian Barbour’s gave a classic 4-fold descriptive classification scheme of the relation of science and religion in When Science Meets Religion (2000):

  • Conflict: A widespread view in popular culture.
  • Independence: They address different issues; there is no overlap.  Keep in separate compartments without constructive interaction.
  • Dialogue: There are questions science cannot answer but religion does.  There are similarities of methodology.  They can shed light on one another.
  • Integration: Seeks tighter connections.

John Polkinghorne gave a theological classification scheme in Science and the Trinity (2004):

  • Deist: No commitment to any particular faith, but with a recognition of the intelligence behind the universe; example, Paul Davies
  • Theist: Explicitly Christian, but theologically “thin” in the relationship; example, Ian Barbour
  • Revisionist: Christian theology in need of radical revision in light of scientific knowledge; example, Arthur Peacocke
  • Developmental: Traditional Christian doctrine making contact with science, but in substantial continuity with the past; a “thick” Trinitarian theology and a robust Nicene Christology; example, John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne says in Science and the Trinity:

“I shall make what some of my scientific colleagues might think was an over-audacious claim, that a deeply intellectually satisfying candidate for the title of a true ‘Theory of Everything’ is in fact provided by Trinitarian Theology.” 

Polkinghorne notes that while the Universe in deeply intelligible, rationally transparent and beautiful with deep, accessible order, the sciences can only tell us that it is doomed to eventual futility, that is, carbon-based life is a transient episode in the Universe. He makes the point “If there is hope, either for the universe or for us, it can only lie in the eternal faithfulness of God—a point Jesus made clearly in his discussions with the Sadducees. … The only ground for such a hope [in a destiny beyond death] lies in the steadfast love and faithfulness of God that is testified to by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Compare with what Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:17,19-20  …if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead …

Some key Scriptural words to keep in mind as resources in the science-faith relationship:

Chesed, God’s covenant love, faithful love (251 occurrences)

  •  Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.   (1Chr. 16:34)
  •  To Christians, God’s fundamental character of faithful love is of utmost reliability.  In the sciences, this correlates with the regularity of natural law, the reliability of natural processes. 

Kenosis, God’s self-emptying, self-limiting love (1 occurrence)

  • Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.    (Phil. 2:5-8)
  • Correlates with the openness of physical processes, the freedom of the universe to be itself (random physical processes understood as “freedom” instead of “chance”; human freedom to make choices)

Logos, word (326 occurrences), also the deep rational order governing the cosmos

  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)
  • John Polkinghorne, Roland Omnes, Francis Collins and others see the order in the natural world pointing to a “Logos” beyond that world—a fundamental order, “logic”, behind the intelligibility of the world and the exquisitely fine-tuned balance we find among its components.  Information (“word”) is at the heart of life, in the DNA of every cell of our bodies.

Albert Einstein said (in Out of My Later Years) “Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. … The situation may be expressed by an image: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”  Pope John Paul II said (in a 1988 letter to priest and scientist George Cloyne): “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

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