Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Sharpe. All rights reserved.
20 February 2004
Please find enclosed the proposal for my book, Science of God, which you requested in response to a query from me. I am sorry for the delay in preparing it for you.
If you wish, I can send the full manuscript for your perusal – once I have completed it. I enclose a SASE and look forward to your response (there is no need to return the proposal, curriculum vitae, and sample chapter). However, because I travel a lot, email is the quickest way to reach me.
Thank you for your attention.
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To what is theology responsible? Tradition or new insight? Institutional church or humanity at large? Spiritual or everyday experience? Revelation or scientific findings? Science of God proposes a method for doing theology that doesn’t divorce it from science.
Two books, Discerning the Mystery by Andrew Louth and Axiomatics and Dogmatics by John Carnes, represent the majority of non-fundamentalist approaches to theology’s method in the light of science. For Louth, science does not define truth, and theology ought to follow a nonempirical method. For Carnes, theology should be empirical over spiritual experience and conform to the sciences over other domains. Both approaches fail because they separate theology from the scientific method or create a domain for theology exclusive of the sciences. Neither of these scenarios allows theology to speak directly to the majority of modern people and to the future we must build.
Theology, therefore, ought to be empirical both in terms of what it says about the world and in terms of what it says about God and God’s relationship with the world. This is the science of God.
I begin Science of God with the above challenge in the light of current work in science and theology, the development of Gordon Kaufman’s thinking, and the question of verificationism that Kai Nielsen raises. From there, I develop and apply an empirical method for theology.
My central argument is that science and theology can share the same empirical method. This approach differs from asserting that:
· theology does follow a scientific method, end of matter;
· theology is scientific in the sense of being rational, but is not verifiable or falsifiable; or
· I have falsely characterized the scientific method.
Science and theology each attempts a description of reality according to its essential assumption or lens and then similarly uses its lens to develop knowledge. When applied to theology, this method assumes the existence of God and then seeks the nature of God using falsificatory-verificationary techniques on proposals. I ask that theologians:
· examine their fundamental models for God and criticize them empirically when developing them into theologies; and
· engineer the cognitive aspects of a theology, developing and bringing to the surface its testable parts, and then opening them to verification or falsification.
Though theology already follows this scientific method to some extent, theologians could become more aware and more consistent in what they do.
Theology’s adoption of the scientific method will result in new theologies based on ideas of God different from current ones. A coherent set of basic assumptions – one lens – will arise that, when worked out fully with the empirical method, would lead to both theology and science. Starting with a common root, the assumptions would develop in two interrelated and coherent branches, one person-oriented (theology) and the other object-oriented (science), differing from present theology and present science, but continuous with them.
The last chapter of Science of God attempts the start of such a theology. I seek an explanation of reality and peer through a God lens that assumes, for theology, a person-orientation, rather than an object one. Theology primarily addresses human meaning and purpose. One example of human meaning and purpose is the desire for greater happiness. Starting with the sciences that examine happiness and purpose – particularly biology and genetics, psychology and social psychology – I seek to understand our spiritual nature and, through it, the nature of God.
A New Zealander, I was born in
My chief interest lies in the relationship between spiritual thought and science. I have published three books (Sleuthing the Divine: The Nexus of Science and Spirit; David Bohm’s World: New Science and New Religion; and From Science to an Adequate Mythology), have edited several more, and written many articles and academic papers. Other books await publication: Love and Happiness: Spiritual Thought in the Light of Behavioral Genetics and Neurochemistry, Happier and Spiritual: Theology from the Behavioral Sciences, Dreaming Time, and Natural Morality: Reaping Our Innate Rewards. Further, I founded, published, and, for over a decade, edited the magazine, Science & Spirit and its predecessor and companion website ‘Science & Spirit Resources.’ I also established over a decade ago the Fortress Press book series, ‘Theology and the Sciences,’ which I continue to edit.
I am an expert on prehistoric line markings, especially
those found in caves. At present, my research activity in this area focuses on
The Oxford Institute for Science and Spirit, which I founded
and co-direct, begun operating in
The challenge of modernity and its science to spiritual understandings is devastating. Moderate religion continues to decline and many of its leaders fall into corruption and abuse of their power. Many of its most vocal spokespeople oppose modernity. It is vitally important for our society’s health to bring human wisdom to secular and technology-based culture in a way that doesn’t seek to impose itself and negate modernity, but rather explores how we might fully live and direct our futures. I try to facilitate this through my writing and teaching.
My web site www.ksharpe.com provides more details about me. I also enclose a full curriculum vitae.
Chapter One: The Failure of Science and Religion
Chapter Two: God the Outcast
Chapter Three: Challenges from an Extreme
Chapter Four: What We Have and What We Need
Chapter Five: A Scientific Theological Method
Chapter Six: Why Contemporary Scholars Fail
Chapter Seven: Refashioned Theology
At a recent
Being orthodox –
so orthodox as to approach a creationist point-of-view – is in vogue. Theology frequently calls on science
to defend tradition and a monoculture of mediocrity. Conferences and courses in
science and religion spring up all over the world, but what do they teach? I
notice that many promote the status quo of whatever theology the teachers hold,
with science as its
This past summer, I assisted in coordinating the C. S. Lewis
Foundation’s Oxbridge Conference, which organized much of its content around
science and religion. What did I find? The dominant voices from the podium
waxed on intelligent design, the theory which hands supposed gaps in
evolutionary explanations to God’s intervention. The more liberal plenary
speakers in science and religion were
I challenge theology and the science-religion field to take seriously science and its method. Science may call all theological ideas and methods into question, but theology need not fear this challenge. It ought to believe that the truth of the ‘God of truth’ – whom theologians believe they serve – will triumph over impostors.
The book follows the development of my ideas about theological method. I lay out the questions in the historical context in which they came to me and I construct my answers in dialogue with the literature current at the time I developed them. The resultant proposal, however, I examine in the context of today’s discussion.
Chapter Two begins setting the stage for a deeper analysis of the problem. I present the development in Gordon Kaufman’s thinking from his neo-orthodoxy to his 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.
I was fortunate to study under Kaufman when he wrote his
turn-around book, An Essay on Theological
Method, and to participate in his s
Theologians and writers in science and religion commonly adopt this idea. Peacocke, for instance, advocates an otherness for God that radically separates God from the universe. I can’t accept this stance. True, we have yet to understand the relationship between God and the universe, but we need not give up on it.
Unlike the above positions of Kaufman and Peacocke, ideas of God must be fully responsible to the life we experience and to the world in which we experience it. That is the chief challenge behind developing a Science of God.
Chapter Three offers further historical background to the issue and responses to it, focusing largely on the work of Kai Nielsen.
Nielsen believes that theological claims try to say something truthful and factual about the world and that we ought to subject them to the tests we apply to other such claims. When we do, they fail. He writes:
Suppose two past friends, a believer and a skeptic, are standing together aboard ship on a starry night. The believer remarks to his friend, ‘How can you really deny that God made all this?’ The skeptic replies that awe-inspiring and vast as it is, he cannot see the hand of God in it. ‘From a human point of view,’ the skeptic continues, ‘there are perfections as well as imperfections and order as well as disorder in nature, but there is no reason to say God created or ordained it all.’ Whatever the believer points to as evidence for God’s creative activity, the skeptic interprets naturalistically. On closer observation, they seem to be using different terminology to describe the same phenomena. Finally, an observer of this discussion begins to wonder if there is anything more than a purely verbal and attitudinal difference between the believer and his skeptical friend.
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.’ If they can’t do it, the claim is probably ‘devoid of factual and cosmological significance.’
Nielsen raised a storm in the
In selecting Nielsen as the guide for this chapter, I place my confidence in an ardent atheist determined to do his best against religious language in as wide a range of questions as possible. I submit my ideas to one of the most critical attacks that anyone can raise against them.
Nielsen’s response to theology failed to satisfy theologians. He didn’t communicate his point because theologians felt it too extreme and because they found ways, they thought, to shield their foundational beliefs from the critique of modernity. Unfortunately, they also rendered their beliefs even more irrelevant to our social problems and ways of thinking.
I can now lay out the challenge for this book and the resources to answer it.
The above chapters on Kaufman and Nielsen provide the question that this book addresses. The two thinkers face a similar challenge – namely, the confrontation of religion by modernity – but their responses are ineffective. We ought not, as Kaufman does, relegate the supposed reality God to something so far from our lives and possible experience that God becomes irrelevant to living and theology becomes a system of ideas that merely functions in particular ways. Neither ought we, as Nielsen does, only throw cold water on theological constructions without attempting to help reconstruct them adequately. We 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, we need to do theology fully scientifically without losing the wisdom from human experience over the past many millennia and the moral critique necessary to guide and admonish how we live: a difficult, but not impossible challenge.
Two resources help meet the above challenge.
1. I justify the use of the scientific method for theology by establishing the need for a better functioning western society. Current social chaos and uncertainty largely derive from our use of technology and scientific knowledge. Our challenges include:
· Overpopulation because of better health practices,
· environmental degradation from industrial and consumer demand,
genetic engineering of plants or ani
· the rapid transmission of ideas through mass media.
All of these contribute to our plague of moral dilemmas. How might we best use our discoveries? What discoveries should we not use? How do we guide potentially dangerous research? On what basis ought society to allocate its resources in the face of such global and social threats? We lack a convincing morality. We need wisdom to help guide us. 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 overcome this problem, to help make the world a better place for humans and our 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 for my proposed method for
theology is an explication of the scientific method. I draw on Ian Barbour’s
presentation of it. Much happened in the
This chapter presents a detailed response to the above challenge with the above resources, answering potential criticisms.
The picture of science I presented in Chapter Four draws on Barbour’s portrayal of science as comprised of metaphysical assumptions and research traditions, theories and models, and criteria for the evaluation of theories. I contend that theology can also comprise these same three elements. This chapter develops that proposal.
1. Theology is to some or a large extent metaphysical because it thinks about the general nature of life and the world using ideas such as God. Much of theology lies at a high level (to parallel Barbour’s picture of science), containing more comprehensive theory, metaphysical assumptions, and paradigms than lower-level theories and laws.
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 we take that word to 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.
We can say God exists, however, without implying what we mean by the word God; in fact, we can assume God exists and ask what sort of God exists. ‘It seems clearly possible to have good reasons for holding some things more tentatively...some things as more firmly established than others,’ comments H. D. Lewis. ‘[This does not apply to] the existence of God...everything else we know about God depends upon some kind of evidence.’ Perhaps some sorts of Gods do not exist. How do we find out what sorts of God exist? How can we know about God? Do our theologies with their ideas of God attempt to know or put into words God’s character, forms of existence, and behavior?
Theology knows about God as science knows about the physical world. Science describes reality. If science does not describe reality, what does? Theology similarly describes reality in that it attempts rationally to explain it both as a whole and also its content. Theology describes in the sense that the larger theological corpus arising from its fundamental metaphysical model sees all through the lens of this model. Science too looks at all through its particular lens of its fundamental model, the physical. Both science and theology describe reality through their respective lenses. By doing this, theology knows about God.
Theology aims to know about God; God is thus the object of theology. If God formed the subject matter of theology, suggests Wolfhart Pannenberg, we could not consider theology a science; because God does not sit there for us to describe like a physical object, we would have to know how to ‘distinguish God from the affirmations of theologians and already-committed believers.’ Something else must form the subject matter for theology and, through studying this, we discern the nature of God.
What comprises the subject matter of theology? It is the phenomena of the world:
Thus, the subject matter of theology includes reality, as a whole and as people experience it, potentially all phenomena and all experience. Theology includes the subject matter of all other disciplines.
2. Theologians first choose a God lens and these can vary. Moreover, the idea God can take many shades within the same school; for instance, Christian theology offers choices for models of God: deist, process, agent, theist, and many others from beneficent to fire-and-brimstone.
Having chosen an initial God key, a theologian develops models from it for God and for the world, and then develops these into a theory based on criteria I discuss later. This involves 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 (including creation, Christology, politics, or anthropology).
Sources for theological models vary considerably because theology tries to encompass a wide swath of reality. 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 theology, but only potential models for they – like all other proposals – need evaluation before acceptance or rejection; traditional categories and ideas become suggestions for starting points, but may not determine or represent the outcomes.
3. Once we create a theological theory, we need to evaluate it. Against what ought we to judge a theology? Barbour considers the list of criteria for scientific theories and then applies them to religious beliefs:
In any system of thought simplicity
is desirable (e.g., minimum number of independent assumptions and conceptual
categories); but it is seldom 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
A theology makes factual assertions beyond personal or communal, private or subjective experience. Frederick Ferré, in his enthusiastic review of the book by Barbour that forms the backbone of this chapter, remarks on Barbour’s compromise between naive realism and reductive instrumentalism:
Is some structural correspondence assumed or not between the model and the reality modeled? If so, then a type of literal picturing relation, however ‘tentative,’ is present; if not, then we are working with a conceptual instrument whose justification is in its usefulness in the widest possible sense – explanatory, unifying, heuristic – and whose ‘truth’ is to be assessed by its continued reliability in these respects in the long run.
By not adhering to an instrumentalism, we need more than usefulness as a criterion. Some type of ‘literal picturing relation’ exists: wherein lies this picturing? What are these factual statements?
Theology contains several types of cognitive statements besides the obvious ones pertaining to history, social, and personal experience. It can make statements, for instance about:
A theology can make cognitive 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 our experience of it anchors any theological statement. Each of these facets falls within the domain of some discipline of knowledge and so theology’s statements impinge on the subject areas of other disciplines. Theology contains statements proper to other disciplines. We should evaluate each such statement within those disciplines. Their empirical methods and criteria (adaptations of Barbour’s list of criteria for general systems of thought) evaluate relevant theological claims.
I emphasize the commonalities in the methods of science and theology. They are not identical, but their differences represent variations in degree and not absolute distinctions.
Science and theology can share the same method and describe reality according to their respective assumption or lens. Science and theology share truth.
Chapter Six interacts my proposal with such modern writers on the subject of theological method as Barbour, Philip Clayton, Nancey Murphy, Peacocke, and Wentzel Van Huyssteen. I only consider those voices that draw on the modern understanding of the doing of science, that is, those after the insights associated with Kuhn.
Barbour is the grandfather of the current science-religion
field and I refer to his ideas throughout the text, drawing heavily on his Myths,
Models, and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion (HarperCollins,
Murphy’s most important book on theological method is Theology in
the Age of Scientific Reasoning (Cornell
Peacocke has influenced my thought in science and theology a
great deal. I concur a with the way he constructs a system of theological
understanding (see his Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming –
Natural, Divine, and Human (Fortress
Clayton in God and Contemporary Science (William
B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,
Van Huyssteen (in his The Shaping of Rationality: Toward
In short, all major current voices in the area draw upon a version of contemporary philosophy of science but, if they develop their theologies, make significant and nonempirical leaps from which they can develop the theology with which they started. Their work is thus apologetical. To be genuinely open to what we can learn about God requires not making such leaps. It requires opening all beliefs to empirical examination and opening ourselves to learn from what science and other experience can teach us.
How then might we do theology, the science of God, with the above methodological proposal? Drawing on happiness as an example, this chapter starts to develop a theology that uses this method.
Social psychological and neurochemical research report on what increases our happiness long-term. Because scientific research suggests how the universe, including ourselves, operates and comes to be, science can – and does – suggest how we might increase our happiness. These strategies have evolved into us. This is an aspect of God at work. Happiness strategies, therefore, say something about how we might live in tune with the work of God. That is, such scientific results inform our understanding of our spiritual natures and thus of God in relation to us.
Many drives compete within us, however. To gain greater happiness isn’t the only one. Choices allow us to balance happiness with its competitors (such as justice) and each of us can choose how to achieve that balance. Our self-awareness enables us to decide this, drawing from our memories about what our 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 we are in relation to each of the inclinations that compete within us, and a discovery of what each inclination means for us.
Decision-making between inclinations is significant spiritually because we employ our free will to choose and achieve a balance between them. Our unique ability of free will equals, in more traditional terms, self-awareness at the core of God. Spirituality (traditionally, God’s way for us) asks our self-awareness to develop ourselves as best we can. To be spiritual means to take account of all the aspects of ourselves and to decide from among them what is best for us. To be spiritual means to ask what a balance between our inclinations and attributes means, and then to seek it. In particular, if we want spiritual happiness, we should answer what comprises the balance of happiness with the other demands on us (what is more important for us to choose) – including the fact that we seek justice – and try to achieve it.
Happiness is only one human quality that leads to theological insight through scientific research. Such investigations could launch all of theology. In ways like the above, 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 theologians practicing the Science of God.
The usual stories that our culture teaches about the world and ourselves 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. We also need, however, a story that makes human experience primary. I show in this 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 our 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. It is spiritual. We matter.
Accompanying this proposal is a preliminary version of Chapter Five to illustrate my writing style and approach.
The book is approximately
I intend this book for a theologically literate audience, but write in an easily understood style accessible for students and others interested in theology.
In the recent past, I was publisher of Science & Spirit magazine, which had a circulation of
This work serves the growing market in science and religion, spurred in part by the money the John Templeton Foundation continues to invest in the field, and growing exponentially as people begin to see the interconnections between those two fields. Further, there is a growing public awareness of our spiritual needs in this age of science and in the face of the challenge of science and technology to traditional values and worldviews. Bookstore shelves hold few titles in the science-religion section, but many titles appear under science, alternative spirituality, psychology, and nature. Many people are seeking meaning from within our secular-scientific milieu and my book lays the ground for a viable way to do this.
Books by Barbour, Clayton, Murphy, Peacocke, and Wentzel Van Huyssteen offer the most direct competition. Their main works are analyzed briefly in the synopsis above of Chapter Six.
Mine asks questions that are more radical about theological method than do theirs. I am not interested in defending or building a platform for some received wisdom. As such, Science of God will interest, more than do the above, those seekers interested in a genuinely open approach to life’s meaning as opposed to those trying to justify doctrine that institutions preach. It will also interest those scholars who genuinely seek how to do theology openly with an eye on full relevance to today’s secular-scientific society and a trust that truth does not need defending with blindness.
Given the audience outlined above, marketing will need directing at theologians, students in theology, those in the science-religion field, those people interested in my work, and, more generally, people interested in the confrontation of spiritual experience and wisdom by modern secular and scientific culture.
As an educator, writer, lecturer, and editor, I see many
opportunities for promoting this book. First, I encourage capitalizing on my
reputation in the science and religion field by advertising and reviewing in
such publications as
Beyond reviews and advertisements, I will promote the book
in the courses and lectures I give through the Oxford Institute and Union
Institute and University. On average, I speak at
In the public milieu, I am experienced at radio interviews and welcome the opportunity to share my ideas with a wider public through television.
As my work at the nexus of science and spirit is ongoing, I foresee a continuation of this work in future books that will continue to address finding an adequate theology for our current age. My books overall will provide a system of thought that, somewhat like Ken Wilber’s but with different starting points, offer the reader a well-grounded, highly relevant, and directional system of meaning for life in today’s world. Science of God places an important step in this system by providing the ground on which to develop this system. It follows From Science to an Adequate Mythology that poses the challenge this series of books will answer and Sleuthing the Divine: The Nexus of Science and Spirit which, building from David Bohm’s World: New Physics and New Religion, provides the basic model for God from which I develop my theology following the approach Science of God proposes.
Science of God outlines views on the method of theology and critiques the current science-theology dialogue. Then it poses the challenge of science to theology’s method, and offers and applies an original answer, a way truer to the scientific and spiritual yearnings of practitioners, forwarding discussions in science and theology, theological method, and systematic theology.