SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY: CONFLICT OR COMMUNION?by Bob Barrett [edited by Katie Roberts], November 20, 1997
How can one relate science and theology? Many models have been proposed to relate these disciplines. I believe these models can fit into three general headings: conflict, separation, and dialog. In the title of this paper, the word communion is used for the more familiar dialog model. These three headings represent three possible relationships between science and theology: opposition, neutrality, or friendship.
In this paper I plan to discuss the three models relating science to theology and to choose the dialog model as the most suitable model for my work at Messiah College. I will show that theological science and natural science are not separate and isolated areas of study as some people have proposed, but that they have various elements in common.
The conflict model which often is found in the media is the basis for the war that is being waged between science and theology. Scientific materialists support the conflict model because in their opinion all knowledge is restricted to that which can be tested by the scientific method, while biblical literalists fight on the battle ground of evolution in fear of science "defeating" Christian theology.
The separation model allows no overlap or interplay between science and theology. The separation model states that because these disciplines have different methods, concerns, and language they can not intersect.
The dialog model brings science and theology together as friends. This model recognizes topics of common interest and parallel ways of thinking in each discipline. In addition to the overlapping elements that I plan to present in this paper, there is the added dimension of the mutually enriching discussions that are central to this model in which each discipline has helpful insights for students of the other discipline.
WHICH MODEL IS BEST?
I would agree with Ian Barbour that the conflict model most often results from incorrect extensions of science or theology. Specifically, scientists may assume that physical reality is all that exists, while some who study theology take certain parts of the Bible as scientific descriptions of the world which could very well be metaphors of the way God works. Because these differences are often not authentic areas of conflict, they can be reconciled without tearing the fabric of science or theology.
I cannot accept the separation model because of the various areas of overlap which keep these disciplines from being mutually exclusive. The separation model often takes away all the human element from the scientific process. Indeed as we will see later in this paper, theology has been a strong motivation element for many scientists.
The best model for my teaching at Messiah College is the dialog model. Instead of warriors, faith and science are coworkers in fields that have common topics and mutually helpful insights. This is a reasonable model that works to heal "the bifurcation of reason and faith" as Polanyi writes in his book Personal Knowledge. The dialogue model is the basis of the strong statement by Stephen T. Franklin,
I have argued that a discipline, whether secular or theological, is incomplete until its practitioners . . . have become theologically aware - that is, only after they have reflected upon [their] discipline, upon biblical revelation, and upon the relation between the two.4.
THEOLOGICAL AND PHYSICAL SCIENCES ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
As Christians believe and the Book of Job points out, God is the Creator of the natural realm and points to the natural order as a validation of His character. Therefore, it is the Creator God who is the source of both of theological and natural science and the reason that they have many topics of mutual interest. As Mitchell points out so clearly using the analogy of physical science as a book to be read:
. . . important signs are emerging from both disciplines (empirical and theological). Both sides are rapidly beginning to realize that the "book of God's word" and the "book of God's work" have a common author--God.5.
To Thomas Torrance, physical science is the harmony and multilayered fabric of science that form connections with theology: Because God is the Creator and Author of both theological and physical science, there are a harmony and areas of shared concerns that are discernible to the sensitive observer.
What common areas or elements are shared by these sciences? I would like to look at humility theology, ultimate beginnings, infinity, and beauty as areas in the intersection of these sets. Interestingly, in a concise passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon lists these four elements in Ecclessiates 3:1. If we link infinity and eternity, and recognize that "they cannot fathom" should produce the parallel thinking of humility found in many great scientists, we find the four common elements.
We recognize that in both sciences, we are insensitive and understand only a small part of the field. Biblical authors often express their humility in the face of divine science. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote of his inability to understand God in Romans 11:33. The psalmist joins in this chorus in Psalms 92:5 and Psalms 139:5. The further one probes theology the more one is aware of areas that are beyond one's understanding! The same humility is seen in physical scientists, especially successful ones. Einstein uses religious language to express the humble emotions of someone who has encountered areas in science far beyond his ability to understand:
[The scientist's] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.8.
Thomas F. Torrance in his book "Reality and Scientific Theology" agrees with Einstein when he sums up a scientist's experience of humility and inability to fully understand when confronted with the harmony and structure of the world. Max Hammer expresses that while being confident of the fine predictions and explanations that come from models of science, the investigator must be humble in the face of the many mysteries still to be solved.
The beginning of the heavens and the earth has always been an important topic in theology. It is interesting that both the book of Genesis and the Gospel of John begin with a treatment of this subject. Paul writes of God's existence predating the creation of time: Titus 1:2 ". . . the hope of eternal life which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time . . . " The topic of the beginning of time and the material worlds is a topic that has intrigued theologians over the centuries.
In this century physics has paid increased attention to the beginning of the universe. Experimental evidence during the 1920's appeared for the "big bang" or day of creation. The calculations came out to about 12 billion years ago when the galaxies burst apart. In a completely separate investigation a few years ago, the Noble prize in physics was given to two Bell Laboratory scientists who measured the radiation that resulted from the energy generated during the day of Creation roughly 12 billion years ago. Science has been forced to recognize that the universe seems to have a beginning.
BOTH DEAL WITH INFINITY
As Ralph G. Mitchell points out, infinity comes from Latin "in" meaning not and "finis" meaning end which gives infinity the meaning of without end or never ending.10. There is no end to the God of the Bible. As Nehemiah wrote, "Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting" Nehemiah 9:5. Mathematics is the language of physical science. Infinity became integrated into the fabric of mathematics when George Cantor in 1875 provided a successful and foundational definition of infinity. I find it interesting that Cantor used set theory for his definition: an infinite set is one that can be placed into one to one correspondence with one of its proper subset. This definition has made the topic of infinity important in many areas of mathematics and science.
BEAUTY IN THE SCIENCES Neither theological or physical science are one dimensional with little to tie them together. Rather both sciences are marvelously interwoven fields of study with a remendous beauty and unity. While theological science involves beauty, it is not as apparent that this element is found in the physical sciences. Beauty is one aspect of physical science that may not be apparent to someone struggling with motion problems. Yet, there is a beauty in physics as the various mathematical models come together to describe an experiment. This beauty may be the way a model describes one physical reality and then goes on to predict a new unknown symmetric reality.
EACH DISCIPLINE HAS A HELPFUL EFFECT UPON THE OTHER: RATIONAL CREATION
Belief in a wondrously rational Creator is a motivating factor to enable physicists to labor tirelessly to discover the generalizations or rules of science. As Iain Paul has written,
"In general terms, every scientific effort is bound up with an act of pre-reflective faith in the rationality of the universe."15.
One finds universal laws that apply to objects on the earth, to the earth itself in orbit around the sun, and to the collections of suns that we call our galaxy "the Milky Way." Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation bears this name because it is applied to "every particle in the universe".16. Not just Kepler nor Newton but Einstein himself had a remarkable degree of faith in the rationality of "the mind revealed in the world" allowing him to persevere 39 years in the search for the Unified Field Theory until his death in 1955. Indeed, the Theory, if found, would have unified all motion, space, and force laws into one beautiful collection.
A sensitive investigation of physical science leads scientists to "see" or discern a wonderful creator manifested in the natural order. Studying science brings us face to face with a beauty, harmony, and rationality that points to a Creator embodied in science. The following two quotes from Einstein who is considered by many to be the foremost physicist in the twentieth century shows his appreciation of the way nature leads beyond physical laws to a rationality embodied nature. Physical science has lead many physicists to recognize an intelligence at work and not just a random set of laws.
I believe the dialog model will best serve my scholarship. The common topics in each discipline provide fruitful areas of discussion while each discipline brings unique contributions to the dialog. Also, theology has helped to form an integrated, rational basis for science, while science has pointed many investigators beyond their discipline to theology. I would like to end this paper by quoting Einstein in his book "Out of My Later Years". In this statement we find a final synthesis to the relationship of science and theology:
Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exists between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies.23.
1. As reported on the ABC World News, June 6, 1995
2. Ways of Relating Science and Theology, by Ian Barbour, published in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: a Common Quest for Understanding, ed. by Robert J. Russell, William R. Stoeger, and George V. Coyne, Vatican Observatory, Vatican City State, 1988, article p. 29.
3. Einstein and Christ, a New Approach to the Defense of the Christian Religion, by Ralph G. Mitchell, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1987, p. xix
4. The Theological Foundations of the Christian Liberal Arts in Relation to the Distinctives of the Christian Liberal Arts College/University, by Stephen T. Franklin, Christian Scholar's Review, March 1995, p. 271:
5. Mitchell, op. cit., p. xix.
6. Personal Knowledge, by Michael Polanyi, Harper & Row, New York and Evanston, 1962, p.9
7. Reality and Scientific Theology, by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1985, General Forward.
8. The World as I See It, by Albert Einstein, trans. by Alan Harris, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949, p. 29
9. Torrance, op. cit., p. 2
10. Max Jammer quoted by Hecht in Physics, Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1994, p. 101
11. Mitchell, op. cit., p. 16.
12. Polanyi, op. cit., p. 149
13. Ibid., p. 15
14. Ibid., p. 148.
15. Science and Theology in Einstein's Perspective, by Iain Paul, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1986, p. 11
16. Physics, 3ed., by Cutnell and Johnson, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, p. 98.
17. Torrance, op. cit., p. 5
18. Einstein, op. cit., p. 28.
19. Polanyi, op. cit., p. 11.
20. Einstein, op. cit., p. 5
21. Ideas and Opinions, by Albert Einstein, Crown Publishers, New York, 1982, p. 49.
22. Torrance, op. cit., p. 33.
23. Out of My Later Years, by Albert Einstein, Philosophical Library, New York, 1950, p. 26.
Einstein and Christ, a New Approach to the Defense of the Christian Religion, by Ralph G. Mitchell, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1987
The World as I See It, by Albert Einstein, trans. by Alan Harris, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949
Science and Theology in Einstein's Perspective, by Iain Paul, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1986
Personal Knowledge, by Michael Polanyi, Harper & Row, New York and Evanston, 1962
Reality and Scientific Theology, by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1985
Out of My Later Years, by Albert Einstein, Philosophical Library, New York, 1950
Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: a Common Quest for Understanding, ed. Robert J. Russell, William R. Stoeger, and George V. Coyne, Vatican Observatory, Vatican City State, 1988. This collection of papers has especially important contributions by Ian Barbour and Ernan McMullin
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 and reality being explained reductionistically from below in a materialistic and mechanistic terms, the lower levels are found to be explained in terms of higher, invisible, intangible levels of reality. In this perspective the divisive splits become healed, constructive syntheses emerge, . . . the natural and spiritual dimensions overlap, while the knowledge of God and of his creation go hand in hand and bear constructively on one another.7.
The modern physicists may rightfully be proud of his spectacular achievements in science and technology. However, he should always be aware that the foundations of his imposing edifice, the basic notions of his disciplines, such as the concept of mass, are entangled with serious uncertainties and perplexing difficulties that have as yet not been resolved.10.
The more the universe reveals to our questioning minds of the mysteries of its being and the marvelous beauty of its structure, the more we are convinced that in its own nature it is accessible to rational investigation, and indeed that here we have to do with a rationality so profound that it can be grasped by us only in comparatively elementary forms owing to the limits of our human minds.9.
When Einstein discovered rationality in nature, unaided by any observations that had not been available for at least fifty years before, our positivistic textbooks promptly covered up the scandal by an appropriately embellished account of his discovery.19.
What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics.18.