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Introduction: The Theological and Scientific Enterprises

1 ‘Science and Religion’

There are many indications that the understanding of the world which is evoked by contemporary science is seen in the West as inimical to, or at least subversive of, religious belief — mainly Christian belief. That this impression is induced early on in life was well substantiated, just to take one example, in a report in 1977 on the beliefs of young people:

Childhood belief is breached with incredible ease on the basis of a simplistic scientism …

In general … what we find … is an uncritical acceptance of a vocabulary of natural science which is … out of date … and is capable of enshrining new myths within itself … Instead of religion our young people have a mild form of science fiction …

[We are] … left with a growing suspicion that one of the crucial processes at work in our modern world is, or has been, the imperialistic advance of a vocabulary of rationality, science and individualism … what has got crowded out is a language which modern society will regard as valid in which symbols and rituals can be described and expressed.1

In a wider context, Lesslie Newbigin, with his long missionary experience in the Third World, has recently reflected upon the shrinking influence of the churches in modern Western culture — which now includes not only the peoples of Europe and North America but also their former colonial and cultural offshoots and those parts of the Third World that are undergoing ‘modernization’ under the influence of education, the media and invading industries. No-one concerned with the future of the Christian, or indeed any other religion, can avoid facing up to the impact of science on faith. This encounter is identified by Newbigin as the crucial point at which the gospel is failing to have any impact on ‘Western’ men and women.2

The general level of discussion of issues which involve any relating of scientific knowledge to received Christian belief, or rather to what is widely assumed to be such, remains at a depressingly low level — witness the controversies surrounding so-called ‘creationism’ in the United States and the relation of a fertilized human ovum to the human ‘soul’, not to mention the welcoming by even the ‘serious’ press in the English-speaking world of any controversy among evolutionary biologists as somehow casting doubt on ‘Darwinism’ and thereby implicitly vindicating ‘religion’. Every year when the British Association for the Advancement of Science meets, some journalist or other inevitably resuscitates the myth (and ‘myth’, in the popular sense of ‘untrue story’, the historians are now showing it to be) of how the Saint George of science in the person of T. H. Huxley slew the dragon of religious bigotry in the person of the then Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, at its 1860 Oxford meeting.

In a more serious vein, I would hazard the guess that leading Western intellectuals, and particularly the scientists who have this century set the pace for the others, would concur that the natural sciences were par excellence the manifestation of the human search for intelligibility. I would also guess that they would recognize too the validity of the human search for the meaning of existence, and some might even concur that religion was one of the fundamental manifestations of the existence of this unfulfilled human longing — along with the arts and non-religious rituals. For in spite of many prophecies, religion has not withered away entirely, even in Western societies, and in many parts of the world it is positively flourishing. The human need to discern meaning and significance for the individual in the universe as understood and experienced has, if anything, been sharpened and the appetite for it quickened by the widening vistas opened up by the sciences. For the perennial challenges of our sense of mortality within the joyful vitalities of existence, of human suffering and yet also of human joy and exaltation in achievement, of our inner transcendence over that on which we reflect and of our vulnerability to the fragility of the fantastically complex organization of our evolved bodies — all these experiences, and much else, continue to fire in us humans longings and aspirations that appear incapable of satisfaction from within the resources vouchsafed to us by the too-monochrome scientific descriptions of our world. So it is perhaps not so surprising, after all, that the investigations of, for example, the Alister Hardy Research Centre at Oxford, have uncovered how widespread in highly secularized late twentieth-century Britain are experiences of awareness of a benevolent non-physical power that appears to be partly or wholly beyond, and far greater than, the individual self. Such experiences are properly designated as ‘religious’, whatever the official allegiance, or lack of it, of those reporting them to any religious institution.

The form of religion with which the greater proportion of those nurtured in Western societies, in the narrow sense, is acquainted is Christianity. It has shaped our art, music, architecture, customs, laws and inbuilt social assumptions, and through our use of symbols and language still does so shape the inner pattern of our thinking in incalculable ways, even that of those who overtly repudiate it. We may perhaps, after a lifetime's study and immersion in another (for example, Buddhist) culture become sufficiently indigenized that ‘God’, if there is one, can speak to us through the resources of that culture — but it is extremely unlikely that we shall achieve such a degree of re-enculturation in an average lifetime, and there are very few who actually do so. A shrewd appraisal of what might be a fruitful use of time and energy would suggest that a Western writer seeking to interpret the religious experience of human beings to a Western readership could best do so with reference to their common Christian inheritance, even if it is no longer appreciated by the majority. This is the policy pursued in this book, but in no way is this meant to imply that other non-Christian religions cannot be a path to that reality which is, as I shall argue, God.

Moreover, since the aim of this work is to rethink our religious' conceptualizations in the light of the perspective on the world afforded by the sciences, there are at least two further reasons, in addition to the cultural one just proposed, why the relation of Christianity to that perspective has a special significance for all forms of religious experience and cultures.

The first is that Western Christianity in its Catholic, Protestant and Anglican forms (Eastern Orthodox Christianity constitutes a different experience) was the first major religion to encounter the full impact of the natural sciences on important features of the received content of its beliefs. Their systems of Christian belief incorporated many basic affirmations about the relation of God, humanity and nature within a matrix of assumptions concerning the natural world that had accumulated over many centuries of ‘natural philosophy’, later called ‘natural science’, or just ‘science’. Since it was in England that Newton and Darwin first propounded their ideas, the Church of England in particular had, a little earlier than some other churches, to take the full brunt of the revolution in our thinking about the natural world initiated by these key figures. In this context, it is interesting to note how the relatively conservative reformation of the Church in England was viewed in that formative period for the rise of science, the seventeenth century, by a contemporary historian — Thomas Sprat, the first historian of the Royal Society of London:

we behold the agreement that is between the present Design of the Royal Society, and that of our Church in its beginning. They both may lay equal claim to the word Reformation; the one having compassed it in Religion, the other purposing it in Philosophy … They both suppose alike, that their Ancestors might err; and yet retain a sufficient reverence for them …3

In fact it was on a church of this kind, in a society in which the church, though influential, could and did have its beliefs subjected to wide and open criticism, that the scientific revolution had such a major impact. In fact, the reaction to Darwin in nineteenth-century England was very mixed and recent historical studies show that there was much less antagonism on the part of theologians and more on the part of scientists than the current mythology allows.4 There is indeed much that can be learnt concerning the interaction between the theological and scientific enterprises from the careful and objective historical study of such interactions between scientists (‘natural philosophers’) and theologians. Although such historical analysis is not the focus of this study, what follows has, I hope, been informed by it.

The second reason why the Christian religion merits special attention as a paradigm case of a religion operating in the new cultural climate associated with the rise of science is that the Christian religion has had to take up the gauntlet thrown down by what is loosely called the ‘Enlightenment’. It, almost alone among the major world religions, has been subject within its own culture to critical, historical, linguistic and literary analysis of its sacred literature and its sources; has had its beliefs exposed to sceptical philosophical critique; its attitudes to psychological examination; and its structures to sociological inquiry. All this has occurred in the course of barely three centuries during which the immense economic upheavals of industrialization have, along with increased freedom and education, entirely altered people's lives and outlooks.

It is one of the ironic features of this culture in the last decade or so of the twentieth century that after more than 300 years of a fecund natural science — one of the supreme achievements of human reason and curiosity — the search for intelligibility concerning the nature and origin of the cosmos has plunged human beings irrevocably, and for some unwillingly, into the darker stream of the search for meaning. An irony it is — for did not this selfsame science, according to popular mythology, only acquire its freedom even to seek intelligibility by unshackling itself from the stifling embrace of a Christianity too much concerned with meaning and too little concerned with what came to be called the evidence? But the irony is compounded, for Christian civilization itself, having given birth to its child of science5 and having seen that growing infant cut its umbilical cord, has resorted more and more to an emphasis on subjective personal experience (‘meaning for me’) as its basis, only to find that twentieth-century human beings cannot find such a resource of meaning in the Christian religion (or in anything else) unless it is consonant with their understanding of the world which is itself moulded by that same science.

So after two centuries or more of bickering, or of sullen silence with demarcation of spheres of interest, these two fundamental activities, the search for intelligibility and the search for meaning, that characterize respectively, but not exclusively, science and religion, find themselves inextricably interlocked with each other in the common human enterprise of seeking both intelligibility and meaning. Each now provides the other with challenges to and resources for an interaction gradually becoming more fruitful and wholesome. This judgement on the contemporary scene could be illustrated from many spheres: the understanding of the human person as a psychosomatic unity in both science and religion; the integration of biological evolutionary ideas with the sense of God as an immanent, ever-working Creator; or reflections on the origins of the cosmos induced both by astrophysics and cosmology, on the one hand, and clarification of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation on the other.

The last trumpet in the so-called warfare of science and religion has long since become silent and those engaged in both enterprises have today, I think, acquired a new humility — not least because they have come to recognize both the limitations of their presumed knowledge and the dire, indeed evil, social consequences of ultra-dogmatic, over-confident, imperialistic applications of half-truths about their respective quests. For example, the intellectual descendants of the Enlightenment have long castigated religion, with justification, for the wars fought in its name, only to find themselves to have sired in twentieth-century nuclear physics the possibility of global, rather than local, holocaust.

Implicit in this study is the assumption of the significance of the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘religion’, not only for the health of each enterprise but also for the future of humanity. For the relationship between these two claimants on human loyalty is probably the most fundamental challenge that faces the mind and spirit of human beings today. It is necessary to be more precise about these terms. By ‘science’ I shall mean the natural sciences, including not only the physical and biological sciences but also the ‘human sciences’ (psychology, sociology, etc.). That is, by ‘science’ I shall be referring to naturwissenschaften rather than to geisteswissenschaften (the ‘humanities’6). Furthermore, I shall be concerned principally with ‘theology’ rather than with the more widely ranging area of ‘religion’. The distinction is difficult to make precise, but broadly I shall take ‘theology’ to refer to the reflective and intellectual analysis of the experience of God7 and, for the reasons mentioned above, principally the Christian forms of that experience, though this inevitably includes much of the Jewish experience too, since this shares the same roots. Such analysis of the Christian experience of God that is the concern of theology necessarily involves a careful consideration of the content of Christian belief, for Christianity, more than most of the major world religions, makes cognitive claims. It affirms, in some sense, the reality of that to which it refers. The sense in which this is so will be discussed later in this chapter.

It is also apparent that scientists, and the general public who utilize the fruits of their claimed knowledge, believe even more strongly that science affirms the reality of that to which it refers. Hence, there is a strong prima facie case for re-examining the claimed cognitive content of Christian theology in the light of the new knowledge derivable from the sciences, since both enterprises purport to be dealing with what they regard as realities. If such an exercise is not continually undertaken theology will operate in a cultural ghetto quite cut off from most of those in Western cultures who have good grounds for thinking that science describes what is going on in the processes of the world at all levels. The turbulent history of the relation of science and theology bears witness to the impossibility of theology seeking a peaceful haven, protected from the science of its times, if it is going to be believable. Indeed, theology has been most creative and long-lasting when it has responded most positively to the challenges of its times, as when the Cappadocian Fathers used Greek philosophy to express the categories of Christian theology and when St Thomas Aquinas faced up to and triumphantly utilized the then overwhelming intellectual resources of Aristotelianism to reshape that same theology into a form that endured for centuries. It is in this spirit that we set out on the journey to attempt to shape a contemporary expression of the Christian experience of God in terms — metaphors, models, analogies and symbols — that might be believable and usable by a ‘Western’ humanity now deeply and irreversibly, and quite properly, influenced by the sciences.

2 Attitudes to Science and Theology

Before going further it is worth reflecting a little on the respective standings of both the scientific and theological enterprises in our Western societies today. Let us take science first.

The standing of science has changed abruptly in the 1970s and 1980s from a general glow of public approval, which was translated politically into generous provision for scientific research, through an increasing hesitation about the long-term social value of science, to a current downright suspicion on the part of many ordinary citizens, who nevertheless continue to reap its benefits in terms of the ease, health and longevity of their lives. This tarnishing of the image of science can be traced back to a succession of public disasters generated by a scientifically-based technology — the thalidomide tragedies, oil spills (of which the Torrey Canyon and Amoco Cadiz were to prove to be only the first of a long line), acid rain, and the nuclear industry accidents at Long Island and Chernobyl, to mention only a few of the more publicized. Everyone can give their own accounts of more local and personal incidents in which it has seemed that the previously worshipped idol of science, and its offspring, technology, were proving to have feet of clay. The tendency of science to imperiousness in our intellectual and cultural life has been dubbed ‘scientism’ — the attitude that the only kind of reliable knowledge is that provided by science, coupled with a conviction that all our personal and social problems are ‘soluble’ by enough science. Many popularizers of science — more rarely those most engaged at the frontiers of scientific investigation of the mysteries of the natural world — appear, implicitly at least, to acquiesce in such ‘scientistic’ attitudes.

These and many other factors have led to a recent increase in anti-scientific attitudes. These are actually not new in Western cultures, for there has been quite a long history of profound dissatisfaction with purported scientific ‘explanations’ that do not answer the questions human beings actually ask, despite the acknowledgement of many committed scientists that science could not answer them. The Australian philosopher, John Passmore, has studied the development of both scientistic and anti-scientific attitudes with some care. He has some scathing comments on, for example, that presumed pecking order in the prestige of scientists which puts mathematical physicists, dealing with the most abstract entities, at the top (the ‘aristoscientists’), followed by those who work with entities (such as molecules and genes) that are a little less abstract to the non-scientist, down to those concerned with obviously accessible phenomena like butterflies and the weather, and finishing with those concerned with people — anthropologists and sociologists, only doubtfully admitted into the club at all. Passmore judged that this hierarchical view generated attitudes of mind that are socially dangerous, even affirming, not irrelevantly to our present themes, that ‘the resemblance between the aristoscientist and the mediaeval theologian daily becomes more striking.’8

Such attitudes have understandably provoked anti-scientific attitudes. Nevertheless Passmore concludes that

many of the major charges which have been brought against science cannot be sustained … I have not pretended that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, or denied that science has encouraged, even when it did not generate, attitudes of mind which can have adverse consequences. We are all of us, I think, coming to recognize that fact, scientists along with the rest. Science needed an injection of humility, and has had it … When it touches on human affairs, science is no longer accorded automatic respect.9

Yet in spite of all this scepticism about its social value and antipathy to excessively arrogant claims on its behalf, science still seems to most people, both intellectuals and others, to be the paradigm of what constitutes reliable knowledge. For allowing, as it does, prediction and control in many simple and complex circumstances involving the natural world, what it refers to is seen by most people simply to be ‘real’ — they cannot afford to ignore it in their dealings with nature. Such a ‘naive realism’ regards scientific concepts, theories and mechanisms as literal descriptions of the natural world. In this vein Henry Harris, a practising medical scientist, could stress that, although it is true that in physics Einstein's equations superseded those of Newton, yet this

is no argument at all for the notion that all scientific conclusions are similarly bound eventually to be displaced. I do not believe that it will ever be shown that the blood of animals does not circulate; that anthrax is not caused by a bacterium; that proteins are not chains of amino acids. Human beings may indeed make mistakes, but I see no merit in the idea that they can make nothing but mistakes.10

Hence it is not surprising — such is the influence of the media and of some exceptionally good popular presentations of science on television in recent years — that scientific accounts of the world are taken as literally descriptive and as constituting for most people the framework, or stage, of the ‘reality’ in which they believe their lives to be set and enacted. However, this constitutes a naive philosophy of science and we need to examine the relation between scientific knowledge and the ‘reality’ it purports to describe. Therefore, before embarking on an inquiry into a believable theology for a scientific age, we must first establish what kind of knowing and what kind of knowledge of ‘reality’ actually prevails in the sciences. As a working definition, we shall take ‘reality’ to mean that to which we find we cannot avoid relating in our experiments and experience.

Now the world described by some parts of modern physics, to take just one area, is a very strange one indeed, far removed from any world to which it is possible to extrapolate from our senses, including as it does apparently obscure entities such as electron holes, black holes, gravitational waves, anti-matter, and so on. So we shall have to consider to what it is that scientific terms actually refer. Do they depict reality? This question will be taken up later, in discussing science and theology today (p. 11).

Let us turn now to theology. Almost the only usage of the word ‘theology’ with which the general public is now familiar is that of politicians who employ it to refer pejoratively to the views of their opponents, thereby intending to characterize them as ‘theoretical’, ‘abstract’, ‘utopian’, ‘unrealistic’ — all thought to be highly undesirable features — while at the same time signalling that their own opinions and policies are ‘realistic’, ‘practical’ and, of course, ‘relevant’. Even within the membership of the Christian churches, ‘theology’ is frequently regarded as the activity of intellectuals of doubtful Christian commitment, pontificating from remote academic ivory towers and isolated from the realities and tensions of the religious experience of ‘ordinary’ believers living in the ‘real world’. This gap between the pew and the study has been much in evidence in recent years in relation to a number of controversies, at least in England, surrounding the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection. The gulf shows no signs of narrowing, such is the general appallingly low standard of lay adult education in the churches. Yet the content of what ‘ordinary’ Christians believe is inevitably ‘theology’, even when it is relatively uninformed. One of the principal causes of the weakness of the churches' mission to Western humanity must be their failure to find a convincing way of expressing their beliefs, that is, of having a theology which is capable of coping with the contemporary cultural and intellectual situation and of out-thinking it. But the unfortunate theologian has to fight on at least one other front — that of his fellow scholars and intellectuals. For in spite of the universality of religious experience amongst human beings,11 the academic study of the philosophy, history and tradition of such experiences — namely, theology — is still looked at askance by the Western intellectual world, despite massive attempts by many Christian theologians to be in genuine dialogue with new knowledge and social developments.

Furthermore, within theology itself there has been a crisis of authority in the Christian religion which will just as surely overtake other religions as critical education becomes more widespread. The effects of the Enlightenment are, quite rightly, irreversible, and no sacred writings and no sacred tradition can ever again be self-authenticating in the sense of itself validating its own claims to truth. Some fulcrum, some point of leverage, of assessment from outside the written sacred word or the sacred tradition, is needed to assess the truth of their affirmations and the reality of that to which the adherent of a religion commits him- or herself. So theistic religions have to face sharp questions today: Is talk about God valid? Do theological terms refer to reality? These and related questions are of the same kind as those generated about the status of theoretical terms and theories in science and, in a parallel manner, press us into making an assessment of the nature of religious language and its ability, if any, to depict reality. For both science and theology have only the resources of human language to explicate the significance of their experiments and experience. It is this shared necessity that we must now explore a little further in the conviction that examination of the relation between the languages of, and so the status of assertions in, science and theology is no mere ‘academic’ exercise, but a vital component in the clarification of their relationship. Only so can there be established that modus vivendi between science and theology, the lack of which is already proving so debilitating to the moral and spiritual health of late twentieth-century humanity.

3 Science and Theology Today: A Critical-Realist Perspective

There have been a variety of philosophies of science in the twentieth century, ranging from the widespread and popular naive realism already mentioned, which was inherited from the last century and was rapidly discredited by the revolutions in physics in the first few decades of this; through instrumentalism and decades dominated by positivism; to a variety of views in the last decade which range from a socially-contextualized view of scientific knowledge through non-sociological but anti-realist positions to the critical realism which is the view espoused here. It is moreover, I believe, also the implicit, though often not articulated, working philosophy of practising scientists who aim to depict reality but know only too well their fallibility in doing so. The arguments for critical realism as a valid and coherent philosophy of science have been widely rehearsed elsewhere.12 All I propose to do here is to summarize this view, without any attempt at a detailed justification.

This is less easy than might at first appear, for there are many forms of ‘realism’ concerning science which are all non-naive and so could be described as ‘critical’ or, at least, as ‘qualified’. For, as has been justly observed, ‘Like the Equal Rights Movement, scientific realism is a majority position whose advocates are so divided as to appear a minority.’13 However, the fine distinctions between different forms of non-naive scientific realism (meaning realism with respect to scientific knowledge) are less important for the purposes of our present exercise than its principal, general stance which distinguishes it from earlier, other philosophies of science of this century and also from very socially-contextualized interpretations of the content of science as an almost purely social construct. In spite of the variety of adjectives that may qualify ‘realism’ as a philosophy of science, there is a common core which I shall, in company with others, denote as ‘critical realism’. The position may be summarized thus, in the words of J. Leplin, ‘What realists do share in common are the convictions that scientific change is, on balance, progressive and that science makes possible knowledge of the world beyond its accessible, empirical manifestations.’14 It is aiming to depict reality. For the basic claim made by such a critical scientific realism is that it is the long-term success of a scientific theory that warrants the belief that ‘something like the entities and structure postulated by the theory actually exists.’15 A formidable case for such a critical scientific realism as ‘a quite limited claim that purports to explain why certain ways of proceeding in science have worked out as well as they (contingently) have’16 can, in my view, be mounted, based on the histories of, for example, geology, cell biology and chemistry. During the last two centuries, these sciences have progressively and continuously discovered hidden structures in the entities of the natural world that account causally for observed phenomena.

Critical realism recognizes that it is still only the aim of science to depict reality and that this allows gradations in acceptance of the ‘truth’ of scientific theories. It is a ‘critical’ realism about entities, structures and processes which figure in scientific theories (the ‘terms’ of the theories), rather than about theories as such. For the ‘reality’ of what theories describe is more problematic, since they are concerned principally with the relations between its constitutive terms — and such relations are an aspect of the causal nexus which itself serves to characterize those terms and thereby to justify that reference to them which is the basis of any attribution of reality to them. Only gradually does confidence in theories (and models, see below) increase, as a result of success in explanation, eventually to the point where the entities, structures and processes referred to in them are ascribed some degree of reality. Critical realism recognizes that it is the aim of science to depict reality as best it may — and since this can be only an aim, the critical realist has to accept that this purpose may well be achieved by scientists with but varying degrees of success. So such a critical realism might more correctly be regarded as a programme for the natural sciences, and the extent to which the aim is achieved should be regarded as open to assessment in any particular case. It must never be forgotten that the realism is always qualified as ‘critical’ since the language of science is, as we shall shortly see, fundamentally metaphorical and revisable, while nevertheless referring.

This last remark reminds us that this position of critical realism as regards the status of scientific propositions inevitably involves some theory of reference.17 At the very least, what is required is a ‘causal’ theory of reference to the effect that the referent of a term in a theory is ‘that which causes’ particular effects or phenomena, or ‘that magnitude responsible for the effect or effects' which the experimentalist observes.18 The new postulated ‘particles’, ‘electrons’, say, in J. J. Thomson's Cavendish Laboratory cathode ray tube experiment, were ‘that which caused’ the spot of light to appear at the end of the tube and to be deflected by electric and magnetic fields. It was, say, the double helical structure of the DNA molecule in M. H. F. Wilkins's X-ray diffraction experiments on DNA fibres that caused the diffraction pattern to have its characteristic diagonal cross form.

Often, a historical sequence can be traced in the use of a theoretical term back to the terminus of a historical-causal chain, the original act of introducing the term into the language, its ‘baptism’ or dubbing. For the whole process of referring to scientifically postulated entities, structures and processes is often both social and historical, depending on an unbroken history of reference in a continuous linguistic community that stretches back to the initiating experiment or theorizing in which the entities, etc., were first dubbed or, as it is often said, ‘discovered’. Such a continuity of reference is entirely consistent with changes in the concepts concerning that which is referred to, as, for example, when the beams of ‘electrons’, up to this point regarded as particles, gave rise to a diffraction pattern on being passed through a crystal of nickel, and so were then seen also to partake of wavelike properties. In such cases the theory of reference on which a critical realism rests will include an overt social perspective, for this enhances our understanding of the way in which the reality of a referent persists through change in theory and is gradually established in a community by a critical winnowing process. The basic essential for such social reference is adequately provided by the ‘causal’ links in each experiment — the postulate that there is a cause of the phenomena observed, that there is a ‘that which causes’ the observed effects. Thus it is that science can often be confident of the realities to which its theories refer, but accepting that its language and models concerning these realities are always revisable and subject to change.

It is in this context that we have to be reminded of the use of models and metaphor in science. In general, ‘an object or state of affairs is a model when it is viewed in terms of its resemblance, real or hypothetical, to some other object or state of affairs.’19 Or, with particular reference to science, ‘a model in science is a systematic analogy postulated between a phenomenon whose laws are already known and the one under investigation.’20 Models, which need not be linguistic at all, and metaphors, which are strictly speaking figures of speech, are closely linked, for metaphors arise when we speak on the basis of models.21 The use of models is fundamental to any developing science and has been widely investigated. The deeply and irrevocably metaphorical character of scientific language does not detract from the aim of such language to refer to realities. Moreover, recognition of the metaphorical nature of scientific language entails an acceptance of its revisability in seeking to explore a world only partially and imperfectly understood — and whose ultimate reality is bound to be elusive since we ourselves are structures in the selfsame world we study.

We have seen that the status of models in science covers the spectrum from naive realism via positivism and instrumentalism to a critical realism. Theology also employs models that may be similarly classified. I urge that a critical realism is also the most appropriate and adequate philosophy concerning religious language and theological propositions.22 Critical realism in theology would maintain that theological concepts and models should be regarded as partial and inadequate, but necessary and, indeed, the only ways of referring to the reality that is named as ‘God’ and to God's relation with humanity. Metaphor obviously plays an even wider role in religious language than in scientific. Thus God is variously described, just to take the Judeo-Christian tradition, as Father, King, Judge, etc.; in that same tradition, Jesus is described as the Anointed (Christ), Son of God, Second Adam, the Good Shepherd, etc.; and the third persona of the Trinity as Holy Spirit, Paraclete (Advocate, Comforter).

One major difference between the way models are deployed in science and theology is that in the latter models have a strong affective function evoking moral and spiritual response. However, the models stir the will and emotions because of their implied cognitive reference to that which makes demands on our wills and evokes our emotions. But how can such an intuition cope with the philosophical pressure to show how theological propositions actually refer, that theological models depict reality?

We have to distinguish between referring to God and describing him; this is crucial to a critical-realist stance in theology. It is at this juncture that, in all religions, negative theology and positive, affirmative theology meet. The former (the via negativa) recognizes that, having referred to God, whatever we say will be fallible and revisable and ex hypothesi inadequate; and sometimes goes so far as to say that nothing can positively be said about God. However, this too easily becomes a slippery slope to atheism, so positive theology (the via positiva) affirms that to say nothing about God is more misleading than to say something — and that then we have to speak in metaphors. The metaphors of theological models that explicate religious experience can refer to and can depict reality without at the same time being naively and unrevisably descriptive, and they share this character with scientific models of the natural world. We may reasonably hope to speak realistically of God through revisable metaphor and model.

Fortunately there certainly have been, and still are, individuals and communities who affirm they have experienced God. Moreover, in theology, as is in science with respect to its own focus of inquiry, one can have grounds for affirming that ‘God’ is ‘that which is causing, or has caused, this particular experience now (or in the past) in me (or in others)’. Since we wish to avoid describing ‘God’ as an entity within the causal nexus (not even as the ‘First Cause’), and since we shall eventually be recognizing that ‘God’ is at least personal in some sense, we would be wiser to say that God is ‘the One who is encountered in this particular experience now (or in the past) in me (or in others)’. How, in theology, ‘that which, the One who, is encountered’ in any particular experience is to be identified with what the tradition has named as ‘God’ is by inferring to the best explanation by application of the criteria of reasonableness that are used generally to assess ideas and, in particular, in appraising scientific models and theories — namely, fit with the data, internal coherence, comprehensiveness, fruitfulness and general cogency.23

This kind of critical theological realism takes as central the past and present religious experience of one's own and of others, so that there is also a continuous community and interpretative tradition, in comparison and in contrast with which one's own experience can be both enriched and checked. In that community and tradition, the seminal, initiating experiences of particular individuals, small groups of individuals, and sometimes even whole communities, when God was encountered, will be recalled, especially in liturgical contexts. Using our previous terminology, we would have to say that in the initiating, ‘dubbing’ experiences, reference was being made to ‘God’ and since then the community has continuously provided by recapitulation links of referential usage in and through repeated experiences of the same kind. This process enables us today to refer to that which the initiators referred to, even though we may well have revised the models and metaphors which we use to refer to the same reality, namely God. Not all such claimed experiences of God will be perpetuated in a community, but some over the centuries become widely available as a resource and come to enrich the lives of others in the community who have not participated directly in the original seminal experience. Some even become what in Christianity is called ‘catholic’ in the classical Vincentian sense of what has been believed everywhere, always and by all — although, formulated as propositions, the number that meet such exacting criteria is inevitably small.

This approach to theology recognizes that both the ‘positive’ way, mediated through the world and the revelation transmitted by the community, and the direct, ‘negative’ way of contemplation and silence, are ways to the reality that is ‘God’. The language used eventually to articulate the ‘positive’ way can be said to depict the reality of God but not in any unrevisable fashion. It has to allow what the ‘negative way’ stresses, namely, our incapacity ever to express in human language the nature of that ultimate Being who is called ‘God’. It is the aim of theology to tell as true a story as possible. Like science, it too must allow gradations in the degree of acceptance of belief in the ‘truth’ of theological propositions and that there is a hierarchy of truths — some more focal and central (and defensible) than others. The whole theological enterprise has often been criticized because it has been said to have no way comparable in rigour to that of science in the sifting and testing of its ‘data’, in this case the content of religious experience and tradition and the scriptures that preserve some of them. However, some philosophers of religion have in fact been able to mount what seems to me to be an effective defence of the warranty of religious belief as expressed theologically.24 For theology, like science, also attempts to make inferences to the best explanation — or, rather, it should be attempting to do so. In order to do this it should use the criteria of reasonableness already mentioned, for these are criteria which at least have the potentiality of leading to an inter-subjective consensus. Some signs that this is not an entirely forlorn hope are provided by the changes that were initiated in the Roman Catholic Church by Vatican II, with its moves towards a greater collegiality in its deliberations, so that we might hope that the constituency of the sensus fidelium will eventually be wider than its current hierarchical concentration; and by the development during this century of the World Council of (non-Roman) Churches, which has generated the remarkable Lima document on Baptism, the Eucharist and the Ministry, the fruits of a convergence unthinkable even a few decades ago. Furthermore, dialogue between the world's major religions is only just beginning as movements of population have brought them into closer contact in free societies. In all this it must be remembered that consensus is, of course, not a reason for believing a theological statement to be depicting reality: that can come only from successful application of the criteria of reasonableness which warrant inferences to the best explanation. But at least parallels to inter-subjectivity in the scientific and religious communities seem to be emerging with regard to their respective models.

The need now is for theology to develop the application of its criteria of reasonableness in a community in which no authority would be automatic (for example, of the form ‘the Church says’, ‘the Bible says’, etc.) but would have to be authenticated inter-subjectively to the point of consensus by inference to the best explanation. This needs to be combined with an openness to development as human knowledge expands and experience is further enriched. When I urge this kind of critically realist aim and programme on Christians, and indeed on the adherents of all religions, I cannot help feeling a little like William Temple who is reputed to have said: ‘I pray daily for Christ's one holy, catholic and apostolic Church — and that it may yet come into existence.’25 That could also be said of the present situation of a critical-realist theology. It has broadly the same intentions as that described by Hans Kung26 as ‘truthful’, ‘free’, ‘critical’ and ‘ecumenical’ (both inwardly among the churches and outwardly towards other religions, ideologies and the sciences) — a theology which deals with and interprets the realities of all that constitutes the world, especially human beings and our own inner selves.27

There is no hope of obtaining an inter-subjective consensus, even within Christianity, on the basis of an appeal to authority, since there have been, and still are, classical, and entrenched, disagreements between the Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches about the mode, scope and location of authority for the Christian believer — and no independent way of adjudicating between these positions, if the appeal is only to ‘authority’. More importantly for the future of Christianity, an appeal to the ‘authority’ favoured by any one of these groups of churches cannot hope, in a post-Enlightenment culture, to foster any conviction on the part of even sympathetic inquirers into the truth of Christian affirmations.28 For any theology to be believable it will have to satisfy the criteria of reasonableness that lead us to infer the best explanation of the broader features of the natural world (‘natural theology’, traditionally), and of what men and women believe to be their experiences of ‘God’. Truths that are claimed to be revealed or are the promulgations of ecclesiastical authority cannot avoid running the gauntlet of these criteria of reasonableness, for they cannot be at the same time both self-warranting and convincing. Any belief system resulting from such a sifting process would inevitably involve a ‘hierarchy of truths’; that is, it would explicitly recognize that some beliefs were integral to Christian identity, others less so, and yet others held simply to be not inconsistent with the core of belief but mainly of devotional value for those brought up in certain church traditions.

In spite of what the ‘cultured despisers’ of Christianity might say, there are ‘data’ available to the theological enterprise, just as there are to the scientific. These latter are constituted by the broad features of the entities, structures and processes that science is demonstrating as characteristic of the natural world.29 For theology, the ‘data’ are constituted by the well-winnowed traditions of the major world religions, among them Christianity which provides our principal source in the West of tested wisdom about how to refer to that which is encountered in those experiences initially dubbed as experiences of God. As John Bowker has put it: ‘Religions are a consequence of successive generations testing, correcting, confirming, extending, changing, the accumulating wisdoms of experience.’30 In this book we are attempting to reflect on some of the principal aspects of the ‘accumulating wisdom’ of the Christianreligion in the light of and in relation to the realities in the world that are referred to and depicted in the natural sciences.

4 The Relation Between Science and Theology

From a critical-realist perspective both science and theology are engaging with realities that may be referred to and pointed at, but which are both beyond the range of any completely literal description. Both employ metaphorical language and describe reality in terms of models, which may eventually be combined into higher conceptual schemes (theories or doctrines). Within such a perspective it is therefore entirely appropriate to ask how the respective claimed cognitive contents of science and theology might, or should be, related.

Before doing so, however, it is pertinent to point out that this way of asking the question about the relationship between science and theology has itself already been sharpened and made more explicit by the adoption of a critical-realist standpoint. For example, one might adopt the point of view of what is often called the ‘strong’ programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge, whereby the actual content of scientific cognitive claims is regarded as predominantly socially conditioned.31 Those having this view would adopt a fortiori a similar view of the cognitive claims of theology and then the exercise of relating science and theology would be reduced to that of relating two ideologies and so would itself become a purely sociological inquiry or exercise in the history of Ideas. No cognitive claims of either science or theology would be countenanced and the whole question of the relation of science and theology, and even more so that of science and religion, would have been relativized into non-existence. To adopt a critical-realist view of science and of theology is to reject this position, and I think there are good grounds for doing so.32 However, this does not mean to say that at any one stage in their respective histories the cognitive claims of science and theology are so insulated from society that the cluster of metaphors, models, theories and doctrines that they employ are a ‘truth’ determined only by ‘reality’. That would be entirely inconsistent with the known histories of the two disciplines. Nevertheless, I think it to be the case in science and, I would urge, it should be the case also for theology, that any particular state of the discipline can be shown to have been subjected to a critical winnowing process by application of the criteria of reasonableness I have described.

I mention the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge as a somewhat extreme example, inconsistent as it is with the experience of practising scientists and religious believers, because it illustrates that any individual's view of the relation of science and theology is closely dependent on his or her view of their epistemology and of the ontological status of that to which they respectively refer. I have delineated elsewhere33 at least eight putative relations between science and theology, apart from the social dimension. Thus science and theology may be regarded as non-interacting approaches to reality; as constituting two different language systems; as generated by quite different attitudes; as each subservient to its own ‘object’ of study and defined only in relation to it (‘nature’ for science and ‘God’ for theology). As R. J. Russell34 has pointed out, these positions may be differentiated with respect to four ‘dimensions’ of the science-theology relationship, namely: approaches, languages, attitudes and objects. In each of these four ‘dimensions’, the relation between science and theology can be construed as either positive and reconciling and so as mutually interacting, or as negative and non-interacting. This makes a total of eight (= 4x2) different, conceivable relationships between science and theology. It is the first of the four ‘positive’ relationships which is the outcome of a critical-realist philosophy of both science and theology — namely, that science and theology are seen as interacting approaches to reality. To this we will revert below, but for the moment it is worth pursuing a little further this inquiry into the general character of the relationships between science and theology.

In addition to these eight possible relationships, support has been given by some authors to seeing science and theology as referring to two distinct ‘realms’: for example, the natural/supernatural; the spatio-temporal/eternal; the order of nature/the realm of faith; the physical-and-biological/mind-and-spirit; and so on. This view, which is contrary to that adopted here, takes a negative non-interacting position with respect to all four ‘dimensions’.

Instead of allowing only two alternatives in each of the four ‘dimensions’ (approaches, languages, attitudes and objects) of the possible relationship between science and theology, it might be better, Russell has suggested,35 to envisage a continuum of possibilities in each ‘dimension’, now conceived as more like axes in a four-dimensional space. The extrema of the axes would have to be designated as the most positive and the most negative positions with respect to each dimension (‘positive’ in the sense of ‘consonant and reconciling’; ‘negative’ in the sense of ‘non-interacting’). Various constellations of perspectives on the relation between science and theology would then occupy different locations in this four-dimensional ‘space’. This model serves, at least, to emphasize the richness and complexity of the possibilities of interaction between two disciplines whose epistemologies are themselves subject to such differing interpretations.

I have chosen to steer a path based on a critical-realist appraisal of both science and theology and this brings us back to our earlier question: how are the claimed cognitive contents of science and theology to be related? Might it not be simply that ‘theology and science deal for the most part with different domains of the same reality’,36 so that, as the same author continues, ‘Science has no access to God in its explanations; theology has nothing to say about the specifies of the natural world.’ However, to say the least, the history of theology shows that its development is intimately related to the understanding of the natural, including the human, world that has prevailed at different periods.37 More pertinently to the present context, since the aim of a critical-realist theology is to articulate intellectually and to formulate, by means of metaphor and model, experiences of God, then it behooves such a theology to take seriously the critical-realist perspective of the sciences on the natural, including the human, world. For on that theology's own presuppositions, God himself has given the world the kind of being it has and it must be in some respects, to be ascertained, revelatory of God's nature and purposes. So theology should seek to be at least consonant with scientific perspectives on the natural world.

Correspondingly, the sciences should not be surprised if their perspectives are seen to be partial and incomplete and to raise questions not answerable from within their own purview and by their own methods, since there are other realities — there is a Reality — to be taken into account which is not discernible by the sciences as such. A critical-realist science and theology cannot but regard themselves as mutually interacting approaches to reality. But we need to examine further the relations between the ‘realities’ to which each refers. This is the principal objective of the present work.

With an increasing richness and articulation of its various levels, the expansion of our scientific knowledge of the natural world has more and more shown it to consist of a hierarchy of systems in levels of organization, each successive member of which is a whole constituted of parts, often preceding it historically in the series. As we shall see in chapter 2,38 the science pertinent to each level may well develop non-reducible concepts of its own appropriate and relevant to the specific behaviours, relations and properties that can be seen only at that level. This has the important consequence inter alia that we have no basis for any favoured attribution of ‘reality’ to the different levels in the hierarchy of complexity. Knowledge of each level, or (perhaps better), along each ‘vector’ of inquiry, has to be regarded as a kind of slice through the totality of reality.

Now human beings are natural parts of the universe and among their commonly reported experiences are those of reaching out to God and of God coming towards them: theology is the intellectual analysis of such experiences in which this traffic is experienced as being in both directions between God and humanity. When human beings are thus experiencing the presence and activity of God, whether or not engaged in explicitly ‘religious’ and worshipping activities, they are operating at a level in, or ‘vector’ of, the hierarchy of complexity that is more integrative than any of the levels or ‘vectors’ studied by the individual natural, human and social sciences. In such human ‘religious’ activities, whole persons believe themselves to be interacting with each other, with the natural world, and with the transcendent, yet immanent, Creator as the source of all that is — the One who gives them and the world meaning and significance. No higher level or more significant ‘vector’ of integrated relationships in the hierarchy of the natural could be claimed or envisaged. Theology, we have seen, is about the requisite conceptual schemes (doctrines) and models and associated metaphors that articulate the content of these claimed experiences of God of both the individual and of a historical community.

There appear to be two ways in which this fundamental, integrative, role of theology, the study of humanity-nature-God, might be expressed — ways that correspond to the two modalities of God's relation to all-that-is (both humanity and nature), namely the transcendent and the immanent.39 If one emphasizes the transcendence of God, the activity and language of the theological enterprise can be regarded as reflecting on that specifically and uniquely human activity, the ‘religious’, which involves nature, humanity and God in its total integrating purview. This activity then stands at the summit of conceivable integrative complexity and wholeness (and, note, nearest to the level of the human and personal). From this perspective theology, albeit no longer the medieval ‘queen of the sciences’, might still possibly be accorded the position of a constitutional monarch. This may indeed be the proper placement for theology when we consider ultimate ontological relationships, the relation of the Being of God to all other derived being.

But when we contemplate God's activity in the world, and so God's Becoming, rather than God's ultimate Being, we also (as we shall see later) have to predicate immanence of God as Creator and to emphasize God's presence to, in, with, under and through all natural events. Thus it may well be that theology should be regarded as an exploration of the ultimate meaning of all levels40 — that is, as an attempt at interpreting the significance of the various levels of natural reality in the total scheme of things. Any particular levels would be viewed in relation to God's continuous creative activity at all levels through all space and time. We encounter here that difficult requirement of a fusion of the concepts of transcendence and immanence, in this instance, in relation to the role of theology and its relation to science, which will lead us at the end of Part II to speak rather of ‘transcendence-in-immanence’ and of the ‘immanence-of-the-transcendent’ to articulate our understanding both of the human person41 and of God's relation to the world.42

All of this implies that, before proceeding with further theological reflection, we must look carefully at the broad characteristics and features of the entities, structures and processes of the world that the sciences are postulating as the currently best explanations of their observations.

  • 1.

    B. Martin and R. Pluck, Young People's Beliefs (General Synod of the Board of Education of the Church of England, 1977), pp. 22, 24, 59.

  • 2.

    Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (World Council of Churches, Geneva, and Wm B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1986), passim.

  • 3.

    Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London, 1702, 2nd edn), pp. 370–2.

  • 4.

    See, for example, John Durant, ‘Darwinism and divinity: a century of debate’, in Darwinism and Divinity, ed. John Durant (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985), pp. 18–23, and references therein.

  • 5.

    For it has been claimed that the Judea-Christian milieu of Western Christendom, through its belief that the natural world had a contingent order, afforded a congenial matrix, to say the least, for the rise of modem science — though a direct causality is less easily established and is probably, in any case, unprovable. For a critique of the widely held belief in this supposed historical causal relation, see Rolf Gruner, ‘Science, Nature and Christianity’, Journal of Theological Studies, 26 (1975), pp. 55–81.

  • 6.

    For a careful account of the meaning of this term (which in English can be misleadingly translated as ‘human sciences’) and its history, see W. Pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science, trans. F. McDonagh (Darton, Longman and Todd, London, and Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1976), pp. 72ff.

  • 7.

    What we are to mean by ‘God’ can only transpire later. But I refer here to those experiences, to use the phraseology of Alister Hardy and the Centre named after him, of an ‘awareness of a benevolent non-physical power which appears to be partly or wholly beyond, and far greater than, the individual self (see Alister Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979, p. 1). ‘Religious experience’, of course covers a far wider range than this, as reference to the literature of that same Centre reveals.

  • 8.

    John Passmore, Science and its Critics (Duckworth, London, 1978), p. 57.

  • 9.

    ibid., p. 96.

  • 10.

    H. Harris, ‘Rationality in science’, in Scientific Explanations, ed. A. F. Heath (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981), p. 40.

  • 11.

    Taking this in the broad sense, see n. 7.

  • 12.

    See IR and references therein; A. R. Peacocke, ‘Science and theology today: a critical realist perspective’, Religion and Intellectual Li[e, 5 (1988), pp. 45–58. A helpful account of critical realism as a philosophy of science and an analysis of, and apologia for, its significance for systematic theology has been given by W. van Huysteen in Theology and the Justification of Faith (Wm B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989), ch. 9. See also Michael Banner, The Justification of Science and the Rationality as Religious Belief (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990).

  • 13.

    J. Leplin, ‘Introduction’, in Scientific Realism, ed. J. Leplin (University of California Press, 1984), p. 1.

  • 14.

    ibid., p. 2.

  • 15.

    Eman McMullin, ‘The case for scientific realism’, in Leplin, Scientific Realism, p. 26.

  • 16.

    ibid., p. 30.

  • 17.

    Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984), ch. 7.

  • 18.

    W. H. Newton-Smith, The Rationality of Science (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1981), pp. 164–74.

  • 19.

    Soskice, Metaphor, p. 159.

  • 20.

    Ian Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (Harper and Row, New York, 1971, pbk edn), p. 158.

  • 21.

    See IR, p. 30, for further discussion and references.

  • 22.

    See n. 12 above.

  • 23.

    See, for example, B. G. Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief (Macmillan, London, 1973); D. Pailin, ‘Can the theologian legitimately try to answer the question: is the Christian faith true?’, Expository Times, 84 (1973), pp. 321–9; J. R. Carnes, Axiomatics and Dogmatics (Christian Journals, Belfast, 1982). ch. 5 (his criteria are: coherence, economy, adequacy and existential relevance — these overlap those cited in the text); and Banner, Justification of Science.

  • 24.


  • 25.

    I cannot trace the reference.

  • 26.

    Hans Küng in ‘Paradigm change in theology’, a lecture given at the University of Chicago in 1981; published in a different form in Paradigm Change in Theology ed. Hans Kung and David Trace (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1989), pp, 3–33, See H. Kung, Theology for the Third Millennium — an ecumenical view, transl. P. Heinegy (Doubleday, New York, 1988 and Harper Collins London, 1991), ch. 3 II on ‘Paradigm Change in theology and science’ especially pp. 161–2 in relation to pp. 17–18 of the main text here.

  • 27.

    cf. D. C. Macintosh, ‘Experimental realism in religion’, in Religious Realism, ed. D. C. MacIntosh (Macmillan, New York, 19311.

  • 28.

    I cannot avoid here betraying my conviction that the traditional reliance of the Anglican communion inter alia on a judicious use of the resources of scripture and tradition, viewed in the light of reason based on experience (the ‘three-legged stool’, affords the most viable way of developing a defensible and believable expression of Christian faith. Such an expression of faith might unite Christians and convince the post-Enlightenment, ‘post-modern’ world of its truth — that is, that it genuinely depicts realities (or, rather, the Reality that is God in Christ through the Holy Spirit). It is such a weaving of this threefold cord (Scripture, tradition and reason based on experience) in a united church yet-to-be in which authority is dispersed, collegial and non-coercive, essentially dialogical, that, I would submit, can provide any long-term future far Christian faith in a not unjustifiably sceptical world.

  • 29.

    See chs. 2–4.

  • 30.

    John Bowker, Licensed Insanities (Darton, Longman and Todd. London, 1987), p. 13.

  • 31.

    See IR, pp. 18–22, for references.

  • 32.

    See IR; van Huysteen, Theology; Banner, Justification of Science; McMullin, ‘The case for scientific realism’.

  • 33.

    A. R. Peacocke, ‘Introduction’, in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, ed. A. R. Peacocke (Oriel Press, Stocksfield and London, and University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1981), pp, ix–xviii.

  • 34.

    R. J. Russell, ‘A critical appraisal of Peacocke's thought on religion and science’, Religion and Intellectual Life, 2 (1985), pp. 45–58.

  • 35.

    ibid., p. 50.

  • 36.

    Eman McMullin, ‘Realism in theology and science: a response to Peacocke’, Religion and Intellectual Life, 2 (1985), pp. 39–47.

  • 37.

    See CWS, ch. 1 and references therein.

  • 38.

    See also ONB, chs. 1, 2.

  • 39.

    See chs. 8 and 10.

  • 40.

    See the useful discussion of these ideas by Eric T. Juengst, ‘Response: carving nature at the joints’, Religion and Intellectual Life, 5 (1988), pp. 70–8.

  • 41.

    And in relation to the person of Jesus the Christ; see Part III, chs. 13–15.

  • 42.

    If the referent of theology is, then, to that which is ‘The Transcendent-in-the-Immanent’, could not its relation to other disciplines be regarded as that of a highly democratized constitutional monarchy, something like the ‘Queen-in-Parliament’ of the constitution of the United Kingdom?