Are Science and Theology Complementary? (RJS)

Are Science and Theology Complementary? (RJS) December 27, 2011

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?

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