Are Science and Theology Complementary? (RJS)

We are in the middle of a short series of posts on  a recent book by The Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science. This is a rather academic book – but the kind of book that someone who wants to move beyond the culture war issues of young earth, old earth, and evolution should find useful. The premise of this book, and of the next couple of chapters in particular, is that science and theology are in a very real sense complementary. To view them as in competition misunderstands the nature of science and the nature of religion, especially the Christian religion.

Competition occurs when science is taken as competent and sufficient to answer metaphysical questions … or when theology is taken as required to answer mechanistic questions about the nature of the universe, from supernovas, to the diversity of life, to the progression of seasons and development of storms, to the reason why the Mississippi flows from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico rather than vice versa.

Science gives an account of the nature and history of the universe; theology asserts the universe to be God’s creation. Science offers its understanding of the processes of the world; theology affirms its belief that God is providentially active within that world’s history. These statements are not in immediate competition with each other, since they operate at different categorical levels. (p. 97)

For the Christian science is the exploration of the nature of God’s creation.

The true relationship between science and theology is therefore complementary rather than competitive. … A positive dialog is necessary, not least because the way each subject answers its own questions must bear some fitting relationship to the answers offered by the other, if it is indeed the one world of reality that both are seeking to speak about. (p. 98)

There must be a degree of consonance and congruence between the answers to scientific and theological questions – but it is not competition, where either theological explanations or scientific explanations prevail. Neither gravity nor random mutation are alternatives to God. Rather the theological answers and the scientific answers work together to speak about God’s creation.

In what ways do you see science and theology as in competition?

Is “complementary” a good term do describe the relationship between science and theology?

Dr. Polkinghorne explores several ways in which he suggests that science and theology are complementary. One of the key ways is in the meaning that theology conveys to the bare facts uncovered by science. We all bestow meaning on scientific facts, but these meaning are metaphysical and go beyond the scientific observations. Theology can legitimately look for…

…the presence of a divine Mind behind the order of the cosmos and the presence of a divine Purpose behind its unfolding history. The claim being made would not be that the universe cannot at all be understood solely from a scientific perspective, for that is manifestly untrue, but that it cannot be fully understood without setting it in a theological context. The doctrine of creation can make intelligible what from a purely scientific point of view has to be treated as brute fact or happy accident. (p. 100)

As we look at the nature of creation we see a rational world with discernible, describable, and predictable properties. The form of the world is broadly consistent with and descriptive of the unfolding purposes of God.

The nature of God’s action in the world. Natural explanations are not in competition with divine action. An appreciation for the theological perspective is complementary to the natural explanation and completes the natural explanation – it does not displace it.

Many theologians rightly recognise that providential action is properly understood in terms of a continuing divine interaction with creation, rather than in the disruptive terms of episodic divine intervention. God who is the Ordainer of nature will surely work within the open grain of natural process, not against the grain. (p. 116)

God is not a cause among many causes – filling a hole not otherwise filled. There is no conflict or disconnect between the God who willed, ordained, and spoke into being the very order of nature and “the God who acts in nature’s history”.

This does not deny the direct action of God. God is in relationship with his creatures and with his creation. From all appearances He acts within the nature of that relationship… not because he is constrained to act in such a fashion but because it is his creation. From the evidence we have, revealed, recorded, and preserved in scripture, he intervenes in relationship and for specific purposes as part of his unfolding work in the world. This is not a new realization required by modern science. Dr. Polkinghorne points out that even Origen in the early third century wrote that we should not ask God for the coolness of spring during the heat of summer. Miracles are not produced for our convenience and comfort.

Nor is it clear that a skeptic near a clear instance of the providential action of God would recognize it for what it was. Is isn’t a matter of natural or miraculous as if the difference is obvious to all. Dr. Polkinghorne reflects on the crossing of the Reed Sea by the Israel as they left Egypt.

A  watcher on the edges of the Reed Sea can observe the appearance of a band of fleeing slaves, hotly pursued by soldiers. He can see a wind start up, temporarily allowing the fugitives to cross the marsh. He can note that the winds drop and the waters return, engulfing the pursuers. The spectator cannot be obliged to interpret this as more than an amazingly fortunate coincidence. (p. 118)

Signs and miracles are known in relationship with the God who acts. The Moses and the fleeing Israelites knew the action of God because of their relationship with God. Science cannot disprove or speak to the phenomenon of miracles because it does not address this relationship.

But are Science and Theology Complementary? This brings us back to the opening of this post. I am not sure that “complementary” is the term to use to describe the relationship between science and theology as though the two are separable or equal. Theology describes and wrestles with the nature of God and his work in creation – these are not questions capable of scientific explanation. Science explores the form and function of the universe – religious, spiritual, atheist, and Christian will reach the same conclusions on well posed scientific questions. Yet as a Christian and a scientist, from a Christian point of view, it seems that science is a discipline subsumed within the general framework of theology.  The facts learned from scientific investigation neither trump, nor can be trumped by theological consideration. Rather the facts learned from scientific investigation form part of the data – revelation – that informs and forms our theology, our understanding of the nature of God.

How would you describe the relationship between the science and theology?

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

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  • Robert

    The problem I see with the sort of interpretation in the story about the Reed Sea is that Exodus gives us the story of a great miracle. The God who defeated chaos in the beginning, and divided the waters to create the world, divides them again to save his people. That approach retains historicity – the form of the story – while endangering its meaning. It’s now something whch might – or might not – be a natural event. God’s involvement is now something for polite debate rather than the sort of miraculous intervention we read about. Perhaps we put too much emphasis on working out clever ways in which it might have happened, and too little on the theological meaning.

  • DanS

    Depends on how one defines science. Hard to find a term without baggage, but something under the general idea of “methodological naturalism” seems to be the primary source of conflict. Theology depends on a God who authored nature and is thus outside of it in some sense. “Science” as it is practiced today depends on a natural order that functions uniformly across space and time with no exceptions. Those two ideas cannot ultimately be reconciled. The following quote is one many will disagree with:

    “Many theologians rightly recognise that providential action is properly understood in terms of a continuing divine interaction with creation, rather than in the disruptive terms of episodic divine intervention. God who is the Ordainer of nature will surely work within the open grain of natural process, not against the grain. (p. 116)

    For many, this idea that God’s activity is confined to working “within the grain of natural process” is not acceptable. The resurrection, the virgin birth, the turning of water to wine and the parting of the waters of the sea are theologically important precisely because they disrupt the natural order and point to a being who is beyond nature.

    And for that matter all the conflict related to origins boils down to the same question – did events occur in the Genesis account that cannot be explained in reference to present natural processes? The notion that God only works through natural processes is an unwarranted assumption and one that seriously undercuts not only the Genesis account, but many events in the Gospels.

  • Paul W

    @ 2 Dan

    In my reading it’s not been uncommon to see a distinction made in theological discussions between God’s providential action or general providence (e.g., attending to the universe by upholding its existence and guiding it to its appointed end) and his miraculous acts and/or special providence (e.g., extraordinary interventions in history or life). These are not typical played off against each other but are seen as different but complimentary modes of action.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    One point for now. As I read this I was reminded of the church goers for whom faith is defined as believing in this because it is written in the bible despite (perhaps even especially) them being patently absurd. So, to those, there is most definitely a competition and science is a threat.

    To that end, non-rational Christianity (like I would contend Calvinism) supports this view and drives the wedge deeper. We need to believe in a rational Christianity before we can accept science.

  • Susan N.

    “Miracles are not produced for our convenience and comfort.” <– Good point! If that were the primary reason for God's miraculous action in the world, then He would be more like Santa Claus in relationship to us. A miracle *may* ease our struggle and provide comfort. I tend to be curious whenever the appearance of a miracle takes place, "What is God up to? What are we to make of this thing?"

    "Nor is it clear that a skeptic near a clear instance of the providential action of God would recognize it for what it was. Is isn’t a matter of natural or miraculous as if the difference is obvious to all." <– I've been on this slow-boat meditation of the Book of Exodus for a few months now… I see your point! The Pharaoh was provided with a front row seat and prophet's interpretation of the series of miracles designed to make him a believer and to change his mind. He didn't (want to) see/"get" it, so it was to no avail.

    However, if my Bible commentary is correct, scholars believe that in the huge number who fled in the exodus, some Egyptians were among the Hebrews. Apparently, some Egyptians were convinced to believe in Yahweh through the miracles that Moses predicted and interpreted in Egypt.

    "Signs and miracles are known in relationship with the God who acts. The Moses and the fleeing Israelites knew the action of God because of their relationship with God. Science cannot disprove or speak to the phenomenon of miracles because it does not address this relationship." <– The parting of the Reed Sea is one biblical account that I have often wondered about. Is there a natural explanation for what happened? In the final analysis, though, I would *still* call the waters parting a miracle of timing. Isn't it odd that the waters would have parted, even if due to natural phenomenon, at the particular moment that the Hebrew slaves were escaping thataway, with an army of Egyptians in hot pursuit? And, perhaps most importantly, what is it that God would have me make of this story for *now*?

    It is easy for me to accept that there are natural, scientific explanations for some things that we currently do not fully understand about the way our world works. It is harder for me to separate my faith in God — even in the occurrence of miracles — from my general thinking, science being no exception. That is not to say that my theology is altogether fixed. Even that needs to expand and change as knowledge is gained and spiritual growth occurs :-)

    Thanks, RJS, for this excellent series of posts and for the discussion. You have broadened my thinking and stretched my faith and scientific understanding — and I'm the better for it.

  • AHH

    I think this is a very important point. To pit “natural explanations” and “God’s action” as competing explanations (which among other things ignores God’s providence and sovereignty over nature) is the source of many of our problems in this area. It forces those who hold the view to look for “gaps” in science in order to find room for God, and drives away from God those who don’t see the “gaps” that some Christians base their apologetics upon.

    I’d say there are three mistakes we mustn’t make in adopting this healthy complementary perspective:
    1) We shouldn’t say that God can’t ever work outside normal natural mechanisms. One quote from Polkinghorne sounded a little that way, but I know he does not go that far.
    2) We shouldn’t turn complementarity into compartmentalization. Ultimately science and theology are dealing with the same universe (though theology deals with more), so there has to be dialog and interaction, with for example (as RJS said), theology providing meaning for the science.
    3) We shouldn’t treat the two perspectives as of equal ultimate importance. Maybe this was what RJS was getting at later in the post. But I still can’t think of a better term or way of thinking about the relationship than “complementarity”.

  • JohnM

    Theology answers metaphysical questions and science answers mechanistic questions? That sounds correct to me, but I reserve the right to overturn my ruling upon further review. :)

    Of course people managed to answer mechanistic questions on a practical level long before the advent of modern science, and in that sense managed to do without science, but they never managed to do without metaphysics.

    Modern science doesn’t manage to do without metaphysics very well or for very long either. Well, the applied sciences are fine on their own I suppose. What I mean is even our mechanistic descriptions of reality seems to incline us toward metaphysical language, no matter what we profess to believe or disbelieve, and theology validates that inclination.

    While I think science needs theology more than theology needs science if understanding ultimate reality is the goal, modern science has proved a fair antidote to superstition and perhaps in that way serves to refine theology.

  • RJS

    AHH,

    Your second point highlights some of my concern. Complementary often suggests compartmentalization – the non-overlapping magesteria idea of Gould. This just doesn’t seem right. Theology is far more expansive than this. But a view of theology shouldn’t be expected to overrule empirical observation either. Maybe the best expression of what I mean is that theology incorporates science.

  • AHH

    RJS,

    An analogy I like for complementarity is pictures of the same object taken from different angles. There will be some overlap, but each one will show some things that the other angle cannot see. And we must integrate the different perspectives into a coherent view of reality.

    I think the concern you are getting at is because of the two categories to which “complementarity” is applied. I think of it (and I believe this goes to the origin of the term about 50 years ago) as applying not to science and theology, but to science and the Bible as sources of information about the world. For those two categories, I think complementarity, the analogy of different angles, makes a lot of sense.
    But when you make the second category “theology”, I agree that it doesn’t work as well. One might think of theology as covering all that has to do with God, which from a Christian standpoint encompasses everything. So in that sense theology “incorporates” science, as it incorporates the Biblical revelation and whatever other sources we might encounter.
    So theology in this grand sense is not itself one of the complementary perspectives, but rather it is the practice of incorporating all the complementary perspectives (science, the Bible, etc.) and developing that integrated view of life and God and the world.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    As said by RJS and AHH I don’t like complementary due to the non-overlapping nature. I also have an issue with Theology incorporating science because it sounds subordinate.

    How about simply overlapping? It seems theology inclined folks will say that science cannot know god, but I disagree. I believe learning about the existence we experience, internally and externally, is by definition learning about god.

    ISTM that complementary etc stresses the exclusive nature of their respective domains, but why not concentrate on the same nature?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    …in one perspective you can argue that they only place where god is all in all is in the material/scientific world. God is the creator and as such has infused himself with everything. The creation is all about god. The one area he has left himself out is in us, our theology. That is the one with the gap.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/CWoznicki Chris Woznicki

    Another great book that just came out regarding the supposed science/religion conflict is Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.” In it he argues that there in fact is a science/religion conflict, but that conflict does not lie between science and theism. In fact the real conflict likes between science and naturalism. Although science and naturalism seem to be in agreement (at a superficial level they are), when pressed deeper the real conflict arises. My understanding of his argument throughout the book is that Naturalism does not provide a robust enough epistemology for science to progress. It is an interesting and shocking proposition.

  • Georges Boujakly

    Science and theology in mutual complimentarity sounds healthy. A key is for both disciplines to recognize that mystery will remain and that constant dialogue toward the same telos is taking place: A multidisciplinary approach to understanding our world and how God is at work in it.

    What Polkinhouse is proposing has the ring of truth to my ear (I claim no expertise in science or theology). Showing this complimentarity to the satisfaction of all may be a daunting task. In this showing of complimentarity care must be taken not to turn toward posturing and competition.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    I am not sure that “complementary” is the term to use to describe the relationship between science and theology as though the two are separable or equal.

    That’s not what complementary suggests, really. It means little more than the two perspectives are “saying different things about the same things.” Neither separability or equality are suggested by this, simply modes of locution.

  • http://chickchaotic.wordpress.com/ Elizabeth Chapin

    I’m not sure complementary speaks of the interdependence that I would hope we could move toward as we move away from an oppositional competitive orientation. Chris (#14) argues complementary means little more than the two perspectives are “saying different things about the same things.” I’m not sure theology and science are merely two different perspectives, but I am not sure of a good way to define their interdependence. As JohnM (#7) posits, “modern science has proved a fair antidote to superstition and perhaps in that way serves to refine theology,” science plays a role in our theology and I suspect theology plays a role in science, though it may not be as easy to define or discern it’s function. I agree with #10 about the concern with viewing science as subordinate – is there some way to view these two spheres of thinking without either labeling them as equal or one over the other? As a side note, I confess that my thinking of the term “complementary” is colored by the gender conversations around complementarianism and egalitarianism.

  • Jeremy W

    The best resource I have read so far on the issue of science and the Bible is by Bruce Waltke in his, “Old Testament Theology.”

  • Edward Vos

    I am not sure that all the miracles need scientific explanations. Nor do I feel the miracles are the proof of God’s handy work in our lives.

    As in the Chronicles of Narnia, even though it is fictional story, the Biblical truths found within the story are self evident, Asland is alive and well. In this way too, the Bible with all it’s stories and history tell us that God is alive and in charge of His handy work.

    So yes science and the Bible are very compatible. Science helps us read the blue print of nature and life. The Bible tells us about the architect who created the blue prints. So there should never be any doubt that both the Bible and Science are windows into the beauty of God and His omnipotence.


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