Theology Needs Science (and vice versa)

Theology Needs Science (and vice versa) October 30, 2014

Theology needs science. So writes William C. Mattison, a moral theologian at the Catholic University of America in the most recent issue of Integritas. Or rather, to be more precise, Mattison suggests that human beings–we, who are thinking creatures–must ponder questions that demand science, while being unafraid to raise questions that are ultimately theological.

The reason why theology needs science, he writes, is that ultimately it is human beings who ask questions and who must use the various disciplines to answer them.

 Though the varying disciplines have different scopes of inquiry and different methodologies, they require one another for a full understanding of the topic at hand, all the more so when the subject of inquiry […] is the human person.

(Omission refers to the title of the Spring Boston College Roundtable, “Science and the Human Person”)

All thinkers must recognize what knowledge their disciplinary lenses allow them to grasp, and with intellectual humility join into a larger conversation with others. Mattison again:

In the same way that a discipline like theology is accountable to the findings of the sciences, scientists (and indeed scholars in other disciplines) should recognize when they make claims about their findings that transcend the direct conclusions of their findings.

Mattison calls for a “common good approach to the disciplines,” envisioning the task of the university to be that of inviting scholars into conversation with one another both within disciplines and (more importantly, I think, in this age of intellectual fragmentation) outside of and beyond disciplines.

The Boston College Roundtable aims to do precisely that: encourage conversations that draw from the knowledge gained within disciplines, and apply it to advancing learning that transcends the limitations of disciplines. The very title of the journal, Integritas, points to a certain anthropology rooted in faith, itself a commentary on what Mattison proposes. Consider this question: are human beings knowers? Or this one: what happens when a person knows something? Too often we leap to the content of a question without considering the activity of questioning itself. If indeed human beings are knowers, then it is never the case that “science answers all questions.” Rather, “human beings answer questions,”– but the word “all” is impossible to include in that sentence, for whenever we gain an answer to a question a hundred others emerge.

There is a kind of “spirituality of the question,” a dynamic drive within human beings which stretches toward answering questions that arise spontaneously. Human beings are knowers. The cardinal sin of any university, then, is shutting down of questions and the conversations that drive them. Theology, in this context, is simply the self-transcending direction of questions: the Godward direction. Mattison writes:

What vision of the human person can be complete without attention to literature, poetry, and visual art? How can we understand who we are without a grasp of the biology, chemistry, and physics of ourselves and the world which we not only inhabit but to which we belong? How can we not employ mathematics, statistical analysis, and experimentation to better grasp our placement in the ecosystem? And what human life is complete without attention to ultimate questions about ourselves and especially the transcendent?

Notice, here, the implication for those who simply reject the transcendent: they say, effectively, “those questions about the transcendent are irrelevant and not worth pursuing.” An odd claim, from a purely anthropological perspective: billions of people raise those questions, and yet the epistemic position from which transcendence-rejectors make the claim suggests that these billions of questions are not worthy of consideration. At the very least, such an epistemology is hubristic. And in my view, it is also wrong.

The implicit, and often explicit epistemology of Catholic universities is that it is important to learn what kinds of knowing unfolds through deploying different disciplines. It is not enough to learn a profession, which exposes a person to only one or two disciplines. One must experience knowing as different people experience it: artists, physicists, philosophers, economists, psychologists, and so on. Ultimately, each person is responsible for his or her own knowing; and, like Socrates, each person must know the contours of his or her own ignorance. Every Catholic university leads students through a core curriculum precisely because we want each student to have an experience of these various ways of knowing. But ultimately we hope that these experiences lead to some kind of synthesis, integration (integritas) within the knowing person.

That integritas is not merely intellectual; intellect is one tool of the knower. Other tools include aesthetic, affective, psychic (in the Greek sense), and perhaps other capacities. We are not reducible to being scientists, theologians, poets, or accountants. We are human beings, fully enfleshed questioners who stretch toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. Our syntheses are thus never purely intellectual; what miserable creatures we would be once we left our labs at night if that were true! Instead, the synthesis we seek is fully human. Mattison again:

Though serving at a university as a scientist, a science professor is not simply a person who engages in scientific inquiry. She is a human person herself, whose research and scientific inquiry is integrated in her person. Beyond the immediate activity of her research she models to her students in the lab and in the classroom the integration of that activity with other arenas of inquiry. Her expertise is the science, but as a human person she is not and cannot be limited to the conclusions of her scientific methodology. This is why—though philosophers and theologians may lament it—it is understandable and possibly unavoidable for scientists to address the ramifications of their work to questions beyond the proper purview of their discipline. Our students witness this in their professors of science, God willing.

Mattison notes that scientists seek an “integration of their findings into an overall quest for wisdom of which their findings form a constitutive part.” They wish to make sense of the world in which they live, and help students similarly do so. Of course that wisdom will draw from their science, but the choices they make in their lives will of course transcend whatever data their studies provide. That wisdom–that quest for a life well lived– will benefit from a formation in not only the “disciplines of the true,” the intellectual disciplines, but also the disciplines of the good and the beautiful, the disciplines of the heart.

Read Mattison’s whole essay here.

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