A Failure of Science and Religion

I sat in the audience at an American Academy of Religion meeting a few years ago while Holmes Rolston gave a lecture. His presentation typifies the problems in current science and religion. The well-planned attack on sociobiology conflated and corrupted the language of science to promote a strikingly anti-science, religiously conservative view. Sociobiology – or, as its proponents now call it, evolutionary psychology – says many social and behavioral traits of humans derive from a biological and evolutionary base; lovers of received religion abhor this. Rolston dazzled the packed room with his use of then modern technology of LCD projection to present quotes from various sociobiologists out of context and, with them, humorously to criticize their assumptions: easily dismissed paper tigers. He finally arrived at his triumphant opinion that atheism is inconsistent. The room burst into applause. Either you are in the in-group with him, or you are out in the cold.

Conferences and courses in science and religion spring up all over the world – but what do they teach? Most seem to promote the status quo of whatever theology the teachers hold, with a science crutch as its support. Theology frequently calls on science to defend tradition and a monoculture of mediocrity. Few voices look at the science that challenges those beliefs, except to attack the science and those who draw implications from it. Being orthodox – so orthodox as to approach a creationist point-of-view – is in vogue.

The boundary between science and theology offers power that many people in science-religion crave. For them, the dialogue consists, not in exploring or asking fundamental questions of meaning, but in kidnapping science’s authority to claim the superiority of themselves and their views over others. Humility has gone and arrogant self-agrandizement has taken its place.

A summer recently past, I assisted in coordinating the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge Conference, which organized much of its content around science and religion. The dominant voices from the podium waxed on intelligent design, the theory that hands supposed gaps in evolutionary explanations to God’s intervention. The more liberal plenary speakers in science and religion were Bob Russell and John Polkinghorne. Russell wants scientists to direct their research to support a specific Christian interpretation of the end times and the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Polkinghorne founds his theology on the idea that God acts in the world by directly influencing chaotic systems with nudges so their outcomes fall in line with God’s purposes. He reviews one of my books, Sleuthing the Divine, with these words: ‘More orthodox ideas [than Sharpe’s] seem to me to have the toughness that a scientist might expect a truly fundamental understanding to display.’[1] He misses the point: it is not toughness for the scientist that a theology needs to achieve, but communicability and truthfulness in this age of science. Both Polkinghorne and Russell end with a traditional theology and their methods fly in the face of science. They impossibly want a science that makes Jesus’ physical resurrection reasonable.

Arthur Peacocke – another leading voice in the science-religion field and, like Rolston and Polkinghorne, a winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion – told me over a cup of coffee that he fears the subject has come to a dead end. With a smile, he lamented that it has nothing new to do but dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s. I believe he is right about the current direction of the dialogue. I also suspect he overlooks something more basic; even with his own work, he has yet to apply a critical voice to some of his most fundamental beliefs, especially those concerning the relationship between God and the universe.

I challenge theology and the science-religion field to take science and its method seriously, and to do theology without a division between it and science. Very heavy sighs, loud shouting, or obvious ignoring will resist this appeal. No wonder because it may call all theological ideas and methods into question. Theologians want to protect their ideas, and those who can want to harness the power of science for their own ends. Theology need not fear my challenge, however. Theology ought to believe that the truth of the ‘God of truth’ – whom theologians believe they serve – will softly float over impostors.

The way of science provides my point of reference and base for comparison. I evaluate from this vision many of the suggestions and debates emerging from the methodological challenge for theology.[2] Many, like creationism, draw on science but fall short of the scientific ideal; the discussion suggests what authorities they unscientifically adopt instead. Chapter One introduces these issues.

Does theology describe or does it not describe? Because this decision is a basic paradigmatic one over which theologians can clarify positions but seldom change their minds, I probably cannot persuade anyone that the nondescriptive approach has it wrong. I will instead use the descriptivist position to help clarify what theological description entails, and where theology might legitimately describe (and follow science) and where it might not. Then I will develop a method for theology as deliberately constructive (it uses ‘God’ as the central symbol; it uses experience, including scientific knowledge, as data; it tries to explain all) that more adequately follows the method of science.

I will lay out each discussion in the historical context in which it came to me and I will construct my answers in dialogue with the literature current at the time I developed them. Thus, I will set this book in history, following the development of my ideas about theological method. I will, however, examine the resultant proposal in the context of today’s discussions.

Chapter Two begins setting the stage for a deeper analysis of the problem. It presents a stage in Gordon Kaufman’s thinking, where he veered from neo-orthodoxy toward liberal functionalism, where he tries to answer the challenge of science and modernity. The issue is methodological: whether authority lies in science or in tradition and, if in science, or partly in science, how to allow room for the wisdom of tradition.

My awareness of the issues and personal involvement with deliberate contemplation on the method for theology began in my days at Harvard Divinity School under Kaufman’s tutelage. An exciting and clear teacher, he formed a seminar group, of which I was lucky to be a member, to debate and consider with him his newly written manuscript on theological method, later published as his turn-around book, An Essay on Theological Method.[3] Kaufman started his theological journey in the neo-orthodox school with its traditional beliefs, a sense of the utmost transcendence of God, and the separation of theology from science. When he taught me, he had rejected the first but retained the others, the second especially shining through. The sense of the absolute transcendence of God – not a regular type of transcendence where God somehow exceeds the universe, but an absolute one where no one can know anything at all of God – pushes God completely out of reach. It does not merely claim humans can never know everything about God – as I can never know everything about you or, for that matter, as I can never know everything about myself – but insists humans can know nothing at all about God. This claim constitutes an inherent contradiction (to know no one can know anything of God is, in fact, to know something of God) and wipes away the immediacy, relevance, and spirituality of God, things necessary for the success of religion and the moral direction for a person’s everyday and broader cultural life. Worse still, it too easily places absolute authority in the hands of those who claim to know God’s will.

The questions I ask of methodological proposals and some of the ingredients for my own proposal arise directly from his work. On several central issues, I disagree radically with what he then taught about the way theology refers to God.[4]

Theologians and writers in science and religion commonly adopt an idea for God like Kaufman’s. Peacocke, for instance, advocates an otherness for God that radically separates God from the universe. I cannot accept this stance. True, theologians have yet to understand the relationship between God and the universe, but they need not give up on it. Ideas of God must be fully responsible to the life people experience and to the world in which they experience it. That constitutes the chief challenge behind developing Science of God.

Chapter Three offers further historical background to the issue and responses to it, focusing largely on the work of atheist philosopher, Kai Nielsen.

Nielsen believes theological claims try to say something truthful and factual about the world and that theologians ought to subject them to the tests applied to similar claims. When theologians do this, they fail. Believers ought to specify or conceive of the difference between the truth and falsity of a claim about God. They need to do this, Nielsen writes, for the claim to be more than talk ‘about natural phenomena in a high-toned manner.’[5] If they cannot do it, the claim is probably ‘devoid of factual and cosmological significance.’[6]

Nielsen raised a storm in the 1960s and 1970s by publishing innumerable articles, papers, and books attacking theologies. He especially singles out positions that adhere to tradition or else try to justify themselves in the face of the challenge. His response to theology fails to satisfy theologians because they feel it too extreme and because they find ways, they think, to shield their foundational beliefs from the critique of modernity. Unfortunately, they also render their beliefs even more irrelevant to contemporary social problems and ways of thinking.

In selecting Nielsen as the guide for this chapter, I place my confidence in an ardent atheist determined to do his damndest against religious language in as wide a range of questions as possible. I submit my ideas to one of the most critical attacks anyone can raise against them.

Kaufman and Nielsen face a similar challenge – namely, the confrontation of religion by modernity – but both respond ineffectively. Theolgians ought not, as Kaufman does, relegate the supposed reality God to something so far from people’s lives and possible experience that God becomes irrelevant to living and theology becomes a system of ideas not descriptive but merely functioning in particular ways. Neither ought the scholar follow Nielsen and throw cold water on theological constructions without attempting to help reconstruct them adequately. Theologians need to face the challenge head on with theological constructions that answer secularity’s challenge and that still center on the reality God. That is, theologians need to do theology fully scientifically without losing the wisdom gathered over the past many millennia of human experience and the moral critique necessary to guide and admonish how people live: a difficult, but not impossible challenge.

Two resources help meet this challenge.

The first is the use of the scientific method for theology. I justify this by establishing in Chapter Four the need for a better functioning western society. Current social chaos and uncertainty largely derive from the use of technology and scientific knowledge. How best to use discoveries? What discoveries not to use? How to guide potentially dangerous research? On what basis ought society to allocate its resources in the face of global and local threats? Society lacks a convincing morality. People need wisdom to help guide them. This used to come through religion, but religion has become either irrelevant to secular modernity or it has tried to build other but doomed, backward-looking worlds in parallel to it. To help make the world a better place for humans and non-human kin, I propose that theology – the system of understanding that emerges from religious wisdom – embrace modernity and guide secularity’s latent spirituality. Developing a truly scientific method for itself offers theology a first step in this direction because science speaks with the voice of contemporary truth.

The second ingredient of my proposed method for theology is an analysis in Chapter Five of the scientific method, an explication for theology to follow. I draw on Ian Barbour’s presentation of it. Much happened in the 1960s and 1970s to the understanding of the practice of science because of the revolution in the philosophy of science brought on in part by the work of Thomas Kuhn. It also left the understanding of science rather ambiguous because no one can easily define scientific objectivity. Science involves both the subjective and the objective, wrapped in a helix so intertwined that they become inseparable. Barbour’s portrayal of this compromise offers a balanced starting point, portraying science as comprised of metaphysical assumptions and research traditions, theories and models, and criteria for the evaluation of theories.

Chapter Six – the core of the book – uses the above resources to present a detailed response to secularity’s challenge. I contend that theology can also comprise the same three elements as in Barbour’s picture of science. When it does this in the manner I suggest, I call it ‘key-theology.’

The theos part of the word ‘theology’ is the most fundamental theological assumption and the one that, to a large extent, defines theology as a discipline as distinct from, say, biology or sociology. The discipline theology centers on an idea of God (whatever that word might mean); a God idea centrally organizes and dominates any theology, the notion on which all other ideas depend and with which they fall in line. This equally applies to key-theology.

Key-theology knows about God as science knows about the physical world. Science describes reality. It looks at all through its particular lens of its fundamental model, the physical. Key-theology similarly describes reality in that it attempts rationally to explain it both as a whole and also its content. Key-theology describes in the sense that the larger corpus of ideas arising from its fundamental metaphysical model ‘God’ sees all through the lens of this model. Both science and key-theology describe reality through their respective lenses. By doing this, key-theology knows about God.

Key-theology aims to know about God; God is thus the object of key-theology. The subject matter for key-theology – what key-theologians study to discern the nature of God – is the phenomena of the world. These include reality, as a whole and as people experience it, potentially all phenomena and all experience. Key-theology, that is, includes the subject matter of all other disciplines.

Having chosen an initial God lens, the key-theologian develops further models from it for God and for the world, and then develops these into theories based on criteria. This whole process involves construction: working out the models and their implications and relations, deciding on positive and negative analogies, comparing them with other theologies, and applying them to points of interest.

Sources for key-theological models vary considerably because key-theology tries to encompass a wide swath of reality. Key-theologians look for models in phenomenology, history, hermeneutics, philosophy, politics, biology, social studies, and physics. Religious dogma, scripture, and experiences also offer models and elements for key-theology, but only potential models for they – like all other proposals – need evaluation before acceptance or rejection.

Once key-theologians create a theory, they need to evaluate it. Barbour considers the list of criteria for scientific theories and then applies them to religious beliefs:

Any system of thought [should desire] simplicity…(e.g., minimum number of independent assumptions and conceptual categories); but it…seldom [becomes] a major consideration in either science or religion. Coherence involves both internal consistence (the absence of contradictions) and systematic interrelatedness (the presence of connections and implications between statements). But supporting evidence…[offers] the most important criterion. Religious beliefs must give a faithful rendition of the areas of experience taken…[as] especially significant: religious and moral experience and key historical events. But they must also adequately interpret other events in [people’s] lives as active selves. Hence [the list includes] extensibility of application (fruitfulness)…as an additional criterion. Finally, comprehensiveness in the coherent ordering of diverse types of experience within a systematic metaphysics is desirable, though…secondary to other criteria.[7]

A key-theology, however, makes factual assertions beyond personal or communal, private or subjective lived experience. By not adhering to an instrumentalism, key-theologians need more than usefulness as a criterion; key-theology contains several types of factual statements besides the obvious ones pertaining to history, social, and personal experience. A key-theology can make cognitive descriptive claims for any part of its subject matter, which covers human experience and history, and the physical, biological, and social worlds in all their aspects. In fact, some aspect of the universe and human experience of it anchors any key-theological statement. Each of these facets falls within the domain of some discipline of knowledge and so key-theology’s statements impinge on the subject areas of other disciplines. Each such statement needs evaluating within those disciplines.

Science and key-theology can share the same method and describe reality according to their respective assumption or lens. Science and key-theology share truth.

Chapter Seven interacts my proposal with such modern writers on the subject of theological method as Philip Clayton, Alister McGrath, Nancey Murphy, Peacocke, and Wentzel Van Huyssteen. All these major current voices in the area draw upon a version of contemporary philosophy of science. However, if they then develop their theologies, they make significant and nonempirical leaps from which they can develop a theology with which they started. Their work is thus apologetical. To be genuinely open to what key-theologians can learn about God requires not making such leaps. It requires opening all beliefs to empirical examination and opening up to learn from what science and other experience can teach.

How then might key-theologians do theology, the science of God, with the above methodological proposal? Drawing on happiness as a starting point, Chapter Eight starts to develop an example of a theology that uses this method.

Social psychological and neurochemical research report on what increases a person’s happiness long-term. Because scientific research suggests how the universe, including human beings, operates and comes to be, science can – and does – suggest how people might increase their happiness. These strategies have evolved into each person. This is an aspect of God at work. Happiness strategies, therefore, say something about how people might live in tune with the work of God. That is, such scientific results inform the understanding of the human spiritual nature and thus of God in relation to human beings.

Many drives compete within each person, however. To gain greater happiness is not the only one. Choices allow people to balance happiness with its competitors (such as justice) and each person can choose how to achieve that balance. Human self-awareness enables this decision, drawing from memories about what previous decisions lead to and from cultural wisdom about what others’ decisions suggest. The ‘best’ way to act emerges from a constant process of discovery: a discovery of who the person is in relation to each of the inclinations that compete within the individual, and a discovery of what each inclination means or him or her.

Decision-making between inclinations is significant spiritually because people employ their free will to choose and achieve a balance between them. Free will (a unique human ability but one that is continuous with the capabilities of other animals) equals, in more traditional terms, self-awareness at the core of God. Spirituality (traditionally, God’s way) asks self-awareness to develop the person as best the individual can. To be spiritual means to take account of all the aspects of the self and to decide from among them what is best. To be spiritual means to ask what a balance between the inclinations and attributes means, and then to seek it. In particular, if people want spiritual happiness, they should answer what comprises the balance of happiness with the other demands on them (what is more important for them to choose) – including the fact that they seek justice – and try to achieve it.

Happiness is only one human quality that leads to key-theological insight through scientific research. Such investigations could launch all of key-theology. In ways like the above, key-theology can and ought to adopt the scientific method and use the results of scientific research. When they primarily research the nature of what it is to be a human being and a person, scientists are, in fact, modern-day key-theologians practicing Science of God.

The usual stories modern western culture teaches about the world and human beings involve the evolution of the universe from the big bang to humans as biological beings. These accounts brand as primary both matter and the science that seeks to explain it. People also need, however, a story that makes human experience primary. I show in this last chapter that to accept the inseparable intertwining of the spiritual and the physical can help elevate the human to sit alongside matter. Evolution becomes as much spiritual as biological or physical. Scientific research can generate knowledge of God and people’s spiritual selves. The universe that science explains leaves behind the image of cold and mechanical matter; matter involves endless depths and mystery. It ties intimately with human subjectivity by producing it. Matter is spiritual.

Science of God outlines views on the method of theology and critiques the current science-theology dialogue. I pose the challenge of science to theology’s method, and offer and apply an original answer, a way truer to the scientific and spiritual yearnings of practitioners. In so doing, I hope to forward discussions in science and theology, theological method, and systematic theology.


Endnotes for Preface

[1]  Polkinghorne 2001.

[2] See Sharpe 1984.

[3] Kaufman 1975.

[4] Kaufman 1975. See Sharpe 1979.

[5] Nielsen 1973a: 275.

[6] Nielsen 1973a: 275.

[7] Barbour 1974: 143.