Anyone who has been at all concerned with the history of the interaction between Christian theology and the natural sciences cannot but view current controversies between the self-appointed ‘conservatives’ and the pejoratively labelled ‘liberals’ with an acute sense of déjà vu. For again and again Christian theology has had to face up to the challenge of new knowledge about the natural world — and indeed about its historical origins and sacred scriptures — and the heresies of one generation have become the orthodoxies of the next. So much so that, even when the traditional words are used in creeds and worship by a twentieth-century Christian, the content of their belief often bears only a distant genetic relation to what was believed in the context of the thought-world centuries, or even a millennium, ago. For the whole framework in which affirmations of belief about nature, humanity and God are set have changed radically over the centuries, and never more rapidly than in the twentieth.
It is no use pretending that these recent changes have been at all helpful to membership of the mainline churches in the West which have usually been associated with the conservation of past beliefs rather than with intelligent, open inquiry into new modes of expression of commitment to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, to use traditional terms. The current resuscitation of very conservative positions, both in and outside these churches, is a sign not so much of a recovery of faith as of a loss of nerve before the onslaught of new perceptions of the world.
The understanding of the world which is evoked by the contemporary natural sciences is commonly taken in the West to be inimical to, or at least subversive of, religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular. I am convinced that this widely accepted view is mistaken and that the myth of the gulf between Christian theology and the natural sciences is debilitating to our culture while impoverishing the spiritual and personal life of the generations who have come to believe it. Study of this interaction, as expressed in my earlier writings1 (some of them listed on p. 350) has impelled me to evolve a theology that has been refined, as far as it lay within my powers, in the fires of the new perceptions of the world that the natural sciences have irreversibly established. Such a theology needs to be consonant and coherent with, though far from being derived from, scientific perspectives on the world.
In this work the more overt and explicit theme of reflection on the theological implications of scientific perspectives on the world is accompanied by a kind of ground bass constituted by a sequence of traditional ‘heads of doctrine’, namely: ‘Nature’ (Part I, chs. 1–5); ‘God’ (Part II, chs. 6–10); ‘Revelation’ (ch. 11); ‘Man’ (ch. 12); ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (ch. 13); ‘The Incarnation’ (ch. 14); ‘The Nature of Man and the Work of Christ’ (ch. 15); ‘The Means of Grace, the Church and the End’ (ch. 16); and ‘The Trinity’ (Postscript). Part III (chs. 11–16) is an expanded version of the 1993 Gifford Lectures which I delivered at St Andrews University whose courteous and gracious hospitality I am glad to be able to acknowledge here I have been much helped in this last Part by the comments on earlier drafts of chapter 12, section 5, and of chapter 13, section 3, made respectively by Professor H. Newton Maloney of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, and by Dr George Brooke of the Department of Religions and Theology, University of Manchester — and also by the stimulus provided by graduate students at seminars of the Chicago Center for Religion and Science.
This presentation has necessarily involved a process of reintegration of many of my, somewhat dispersed, previous theological reflections (in works devoted primarily to the challenge of the natural sciences to theology) into what I hope is a more coherent theology. So I ask the reader to forgive what might otherwise appear as a tendency to excessive retrospective self-reference in the notes. In the event, these notes have, more generally, become somewhat extensive since the process of integration has required the incorporation into my theology of the insights of other theologians and scientists, so that many particular points merited fuller elaboration than was appropriate in the main text — which the reader is, in any case, advised to follow initially without interruption by reference to the notes.
For the whole exercise is intended not so much as ‘apologetic’ but, putatively, as creative theology in response to the comprehensive, indeed dazzling, perspective on the being and becoming of the world and of humanity that the sciences have now unveiled to our generation in this last decade of the twentieth century. I offer these reflections not in any spirit of wishing to disturb those for whom fully traditional formulations and interpretations still have meaning, but to those who would like to follow in the Christian ‘Way’ but have thought they could not do so with intellectual integrity.
Oxford, May 1993
Note ‘God is neither male nor female, and I have earlier (in Creation and the World of Science, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979, pp. 141–4) been quite explicit concerning the need to recover and extend the use of both feminine attributes of God and feminine models of God's relation to the world. So I have tried to avoid the use of male pronouns in sentences about ‘God’. Sometimes, however, the exigencies of English syntax and euphony have defeated me. I ask the reader to be indulgent to me in these unavoidable lapses and not to attribute any theological significance to them.
The Introduction to this volume incorporates ideas, and some actual text, drawn from lectures by the author in part published in: Religion and Intellectual Life, 2 (1985), pp. 7–26; ibid., 5 (1988), pp. 45–58); Religion, Science and Public Policy, ed. F. T. Birtel (Crossroad, New York, 1987), pp. 3–29; Cosmos as Creation, ed. Ted Peters (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1989), pp. 28–43.