Why Science and Theology Need Not Conflict

Why Science and Theology Need Not Conflict September 1, 2019

Some Thoughts about Science and Christian Theology (and Why They Need Not Conflict

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First, why does this matter? Why talk about the relationship between science and theology here and now? Because the “conflict model” that pits them against each other is still intense—both among scientists and devout Christians who are not scientists. Many moderate Christians feel caught in the middle and do not know how to answer questions about modern science and Christian thought including the Bible but also traditional Christian doctrine. There is a felt need for a peace between modern science and classical Christian theology.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Second, what have been some views of science and Christian theology that cause this conflict model to continue? Why do many scientists think science falsifies theology and why do many Christians think theology falsifies science? Also, why do some (many) Christians claim that the two—science and theology—are about entirely different subjects and therefore in principle cannot conflict? (That is a very common way of making peace between science and theology but often at the cost of denying that theology has any explanatory power at all. That is, reducing theology to spirituality and ethics with no truth claims about reality outside the inner world of the individual or outside the search for justice.)

Third, we need to understand what “science” and “theology” mean. That’s crucial to reconciling them if that’s possible. And probably much of the conflict between them arises from misunderstandings of each.

Traditionally, theology has been called “the science of God.” Obviously this does not mean “science” as in the physical, experimental sciences such as physics and biology and chemistry. “Science” has a broader meaning that that. Think, for example, of “political science.” That is certainly not one of the physical, experimental sciences. When we call theology a science all we mean is that theology, done well, is not merely subjective and not at all esoteric (hidden, secret) but has a method using sources and norms and basic reason (logic). The sources and norms of Christian theology include revelation/scripture, tradition, reason and experience (the Wesleyan Quadrilateral).

“Science,” then can be understood to mean any orderly way of thinking about a subject that has sources and norms and uses reason.

But this still leaves open the question of conflict between the physical, experimental sciences and Christian theology. What to do when their conclusions about reality seem to conflict with each other?

One very common approach to solving this problem is to put the physical, experimental sciences such as astronomy, geology, physics, biology and chemistry in one compartment often called “facts” and theology in an entirely separate compartment called “faith” or “values” or “spirituality.” In this model explanation is relegated entirely to the physical, experimental sciences (possibly also the human sciences such as sociology and psychology) and theology divests itself of all explanatory power except in the areas of ethics and spirituality. Even there, in this dualistic model, theology does not really explain anything but advocates and nurtures. Usually, this model reduces theology’s role to supporting the search for justice in society and aiding spiritual formation of Christians.

A problem with this dualistic model is that the relevance of theology is greatly reduced—to a kind of subjective sphere. It also tends to exclude from theology consideration of objective reality, the “world,” and limit it to behavior-guidance. Doctrine tends to dwindle away in this model—except “doctrine” understood as ethics. But how does one do Christian ethics (or spirituality) with no doctrine to guide?

The dualistic model is common among liberal Protestants. But a different model is common among conservative, especially fundamentalist Christians. I will call it the “perpetual conflict model.” In this model, science and Christian theology stand in perpetual conflict with each other and that’s considered a good thing. Sciences (physical, experimental but also often human) are considered the enemy of Christian faith—at least as they are conducted in the modern world outside the confines of the conservative/fundamentalist Christian church and school. Often these Christians develop an alternative “science” that has little or nothing to do with the modern, physical, experimental sciences. This model tends to thrive on conflict and refuses ever to attempt reconciliation or correlation between modern science outside fundamentalism and the Bible and theology.

A problem with this “perpetual conflict model” is that Christianity, as interpreted by fundamentalists, becomes obscurantist (“head in the sand” posture toward facts) and irrelevant to the wider, larger world of facts being discovered by modern science. Eventually what tends to happen is that young people who grow up in this anti-science culture of fundamentalism discover some undeniable facts (e.g., about the age of the earth) that then causes them to question everything about the Bible and Christianity. Many toss their Christian faith away when they encounter undeniable facts of science that they have been told absolutely contradict Christianity (the Bible and theology).

There are, of course, other models; I could go on detailing them. However, the two models above seem to include most thoughtful Christians. Most tend to go one direction or the other. Both models have severe problems. Both models tend to pit science and traditional theology, theology that makes truth claims, that claims to have some explanatory power, against each other.

Is there a third model for relating modern science to traditional theology?

Yes, but first I need to talk briefly about “modern science” and “traditional theology.” Much of the conflict is based on misunderstandings of both that make conflict inevitable.

By “modern science” I mean the work of men and women observing and experimenting and drawing conclusions about nature (including human nature) based on evidence and reason. Unfortunately, many scientists and many interpreters of modern science smuggle into “modern science” a philosophy called “naturalism”—the idea that nature is all there is. That is not a scientific fact and cannot be supported by science. Physical, experimental science is not philosophy; the claim that nature is all there is is philosophy and it is unprovable.

By “traditional theology” I mean reasonable reflection on Christian sources and norms (mentioned above) that aims to correct misunderstandings of those sources and norms and to construct and explain Christian doctrines based on those sources and norms.

Here, at this point, I want to clear up a very common misunderstanding about theology. It is that because Christian theologians often disagree about the meaning of Christian sources and norms there is not truth there—in theology. That is an unreasonable focus on pluralism in theology; it is unreasonable because every science contains pluralism. There are different and often conflicting viewpoints and conclusions in every science. Seemingly, only about theology is it assumed that because of theological pluralism theology must not be about truth, that it must be merely subjective if not esoteric. The fact is that some theologies are wrong and some are “righter” perhaps without being completely right because God, the object of theology, is transcendent and beyond complete comprehension and because human beings are sinners and that includes theologians and our sin often gets in the way of true understanding and exposition of what God has revealed. I write that as a Christian theologian.

So is there a model of thinking about modern science and traditional theology (theology that makes universal truth claims) that can at least move the two toward reconciliation? Yes, but it’s not as simple as the first two models which is probably why many people don’t know about it and when they do hear about it decline to consider it. The first two models are quite simple, but truth is often very complicated.

What is this third model? I will call it the “integration model.” Others have given it names like “complementarity” or “correlation.” In this model (in all its varieties) science and theology complement each other and can seek integration—mutual correction and enrichment.

In this third model, both science and theology make truth claims; both claim to have real explanatory power. And rather than dualistically separating them or regarding them as competitors this model regards them as sometimes making truth claims about the same things and events but on different planes of explanation. I will call these planes “primary” and “secondary” in terms of causality. This is, of course, “called” from the theological point of view, but there is no necessary conflict with the scientific point of view. (Scientists as scientists will not recognize what I am calling “primary causes.” Theologians as theologians generally do not look for what I am calling secondary causes but look to scientists to explain them.)

From Christian theology’s point of view, of course, God is the primary cause of the existence of things and of nature and nature’s laws. From Christian theology’s point of view, nature and nature’s laws are the secondary causes of most things and events. A somewhat popular way of putting this is that God is the answer to the “who” and “why” questions whereas nature and nature’s laws, as studied by science, are the answers to the “what” and “how” questions.

Several questions arise when this much is said about this third integrative model of the relationship between science and theology.

First, can science get along just fine without theology? The answer is yes insofar as science sticks to what science does—observe, investigate and explain nature and nature’s laws and the things nature produces and the events within nature that are regular and repeatable. However, science cannot and should not, as science, ask or attempt to answer ultimate questions about the why of things. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is, according to philosopher Martin Heidegger, the ultimate philosophical question. Science cannot answer that. Theology answers that.

Second, can theology get along fine without science? The answer is yes insofar as theology sticks to what theology does—draw on divine revelation to answer life’s ultimate questions such as “Why are we here?” and “What is the good life?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing.” Theology does not need science to answer those questions.

Third, how is this not just a version of the first model—the dualistic model that puts science and theology in completely different, water-tight “boxes?” Because in this third model theology claims to explain things that science sometimes also explains. But the two explanations complement each other; they are on different planes so they don’t compete with each other.

An obvious example is the beginning of the universe in which we live now. Science tells us it began with the “big bang.” Theology tells us it began with creation by God—“out of nothing.” (“Out of nothing” means not out of God’s own being or substance or out of some eternally pre-existing material over against God.) Both claims are explanatory and both can be true without competing against each other.

Fourth, aren’t there times, instances, when science and theology actually do contradict each other and one is right and the other is wrong? This is the most troubling question of all. And the answer is yes and no. On the surface it appears as if the answer must be yes. But below the surface the answer is no. Here’s why…

Sometimes scientists put on a different “hat,” so to speak, and speak not as scientists but as metaphysical philosophers, secular theologians (so to speak). They say things that aren’t really scientific such as “We now know miracles do not happen.” That is not really a statement of science. Science qua science cannot prove that. (Interestingly, and very mysteriously, sometimes theologians agree with these scientists and discard belief in miracles because they are under the entirely false impression that belief in miracles is unscientific.)

Sometimes theologians put on a different “hat,” so to speak, and speak not as theologians but as scientists and say things that aren’t really theological such as “We know from revelation that God created the universe in seven days of twenty-four hours each about ten thousand years ago.” Actually, theology has no business saying that because the first chapters of Genesis are not supposed to be taken that literally. Even before modern science some Christian theologians such as Augustine (fourth and fifth centuries) knew that the “days” of Genesis were not twenty-four hour days.

So, yes, sometimes scientists say things that conflict with theology and sometimes theologians say things that conflict with science, but no, most of the time these conflicts are not real. The conflict is between scientists overstepping their boundaries and theologians overstepping theirs.

So what about the no answer? If something is truly a fact it has to be true because there cannot be false facts. And if something is really true, a fact, then both science and theology have to find room for it if it lies in their “domains.” Or they can ignore it if it does not.

For example, theology talks about angels and demons. They do not lie anywhere in science’s domain. Science does not study them. They are outside nature which is what science studies. Theologians should not expect scientists as scientists to include angels or demons in their repertoire of explanatory causes. There may be times when science cannot explain an event and theology might inform science that that particular event was “demonic” in nature. The scientist may or may not believe that, depending on his or her worldview.

For example, science talks about black holes. They do not lie anywhere in theology’s domain except that if they exist they fall somewhere under God’s creatorship and sovereignty. But theology does not expect science to deal with that theological truth.

Two things often cause unnecessary conflicts (or apparent conflicts) between science and theology. First, some scientists smuggle into their science metaphysical naturalism—the worldview that nature is all there is in reality. That is not scientific fact; it is unprovable by any scientific method or reasoning. Second, some theologians strongly object to science’s methodological naturalism—the exclusion of supernatural causes from scientific explanation. But methodological naturalism is necessary for the progress of modern science. Scientists must assume, for purposes of research, that everything they are studying is either a natural cause or the result of natural causes.

But methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism are not the same thing or even necessarily linked with each other. When they are linked by either scientists or theologians (or philosophers) conflict between science and theology is inevitable.

But one other question lurks around this “integrative model” of the relationship between science and theology. Are there times when theology must “bow” to science and adjust its claims in light of science’s discoveries? Yes. When something is scientifically beyond dispute, when it is truly factual, theology cannot continue to dispute it. It has to return to its interpretation of its sources and reinterpret them insofar as the fact really conflicts with what theology has been claiming as true. The classic case of this was, of course, the “Galileo affair” in the seventeenth century when Galileo proved that the earth revolves around the sun. The church, theologians, should have immediately acknowledged the truth of this and reinterpreted scripture and tradition to make room for this newly discovered fact.

When something is beyond reasonable doubt a material fact, whatever its source may be, theology must “make room” for it even if that means reinterpreting its sources.

But what about the other way around? Are there times when science must “bow” to theology and adjust its claims in light of theology’s discoveries? Yes. But this almost never happens when science sticks to its own territory. It only happens when science makes claims that are unscientific, not about nature and nature’s laws and their effects but about primary causation—the ultimate “why” of things. (Sidebar: Some scientists have encountered phenomena that they believe science qua science cannot explain and turn to theology for explanation. Theology is there to help if the scientist really believes science cannot explain the phenomena. An example is the late psychologist M. Scott Peck who believed he observed “evil” at work in some of his patients and could not explain it scientifically. So he turned to traditional Christian belief in the demonic to explain what he called—as a scientist—“malicious narcissism.” He wrote a book entitled People of the Lie where he integrated theology and science in explaining this phenomenon. But, of course, the scientific community did not embrace the demonic as a category of mental illness or personality disorder as Peck wanted. That is understandable. My only point with this example is that, from a theological point of view, there are times when a particular scientist turns to theology to help explain something he or she believes science cannot explain. But it would be wrong, disruptive to both science and theology, for supernatural explanations to become “stock and standard” within science.)

Back to the question at hand: How does this “integrative model” help science and theology to not conflict? Examples help. Suppose a scientist says “The resurrection of Jesus Christ could not have happened.” In fact, science cannot prove that the resurrection could not have happened. The statement is not scientific; it is an expression of the scientist’s worldview which is not produced by science itself but by the scientist’s perspective on reality. It is an assumption and if there is a God who is the ultimate “author” of nature and nature’s laws there is no reason why God could not, did not, “suspend” the normal functioning of nature to produce the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here the theologian steps in to correct the scientist and point out that what he or she says is not actually science and that, within a theistic worldview, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is absolutely possible.

But just as the theologian might need to correct a scientist who claims the resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot have happened, so the theologian ought to correct believers in God who say things like “Science can prove the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” It cannot. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was an event of revelation, not a natural event. It cannot be proven scientifically even if there is historical reason for believing in it.

Again, someone will wonder and ask how this “integrative model” differs from the dualistic model and the perpetual conflict model. It differs from the dualistic model because here, in the third model, theology claims to explain things. It does not yield all explanatory power to science. It puts science’s and theology’s explanations on different planes. It differs from the perpetual conflict model because the two different planes of explanation do not necessarily conflict and, indeed, should not conflict with each other. They should complement each other.

Allow me to end with an illustration from real life. When I was ten years old I suffered rheumatic fever which was a very serious childhood illness common before penicillin became common to treat strep throat. Strep throat in children often leads to rheumatic fever if not treated with penicillin (or some other antibiotic similar to it such as amoxicillin). After many weeks of suffering, both in the hospital and at home, unable to walk or play or even move (under doctor’s orders to lie absolutely still so as not to put strain my heart) the pediatric cardiologist announced that he was going to try a new drug on me because bed rest and lots of aspirin and penicillin were not yielding any results. My heart murmur remained “impressive.” He indicated that the damage was already done and I would have to have one or more of my heart valves replaced later in life. But he wanted to speed up the recovery process which had not even really begun. So he prescribed a new “miracle drug” called “cortisone.” That week, while I was taking the steroid drug, the “elders” of my church came to my house and laid hands on me, anointed me with oil, and prayed for my healing. One week after the doctor prescribed the medicine and some days after the elders prayed for me, I went to the doctor again and he listened to my heart and pronounced “no murmur!” He attributed it to the cortisone but cautioned that the heart valves were not cured by it. The inflammation was gone, but the damage was there and I would have to have one or more valves surgically replaced sometime later. To make a long story short, that was many, many years ago and I have never had rheumatic fever damage to my heart valves. I have had many echocardiograms and they have never shown the predicted damage.

Was it the medicine or was it God? The integrative model asks “Why couldn’t it be both?” The doctor, a man of medicine and not a Christian, belittled and denied the “prayer explanation.” He scoffed at it. (I know because I was there!) My Christian parents and church elders scoffed at the “medicine explanation.” But two things are certain. The medicine stopped my suffering and relieved my heart murmur and I have never had the predicted heart valve damage which the cardiologist was certain there would be. I have no doubt that God healed my heart valves and used the medicine to relieve my joint pain and halt the heart murmur. The medicine was a secondary cause; God was the primary cause—of my getting and staying well.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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