You could drive a truck through the science and theology divide. Or so Richard Dawkins and company would have us believe with their “science eliminates God” take on the world.
Historically, Christian responses to scientific advances have ranged from dismissive to enthusiastic. The moments of dismissal echo loudest.
For example, while popular mythology says Charles Darwin was tarred and feathered by the church, one of the oft-forgotten first responses to On the Origin of Species was commentary by Baden Powell, an Anglican priest who referred to it as “a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion.” Though a self-professed agnostic, Darwin wrote that he thought it was entirely possible to be “an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.”
Some church leaders have even played an integral role in advancing science. Seventeenth-century Jesuit astronomers and a string of popes were as adept at mathematics and physics as theology; some of the greatest scientists were deeply devout. And yet, positioning the church as unenlightened and science as saviour continues to serve an agenda.
Enter the discipline of “scientific theology,” as scientist and theologian Alister McGrath calls it. Over the last couple of decades, a number of scholars have helped tear religiosity from irrational, dim-witted stereotypes by suggesting that science and theology aren’t as strange bedfellows as they’re made out to be. If theology is “faith seeking understanding,” as 11th-century monk Anselm of Canterbury put it, and science is similarly in pursuit of truth, then the two belong together.
The late Ian Barbour, whose pioneering work has been credited with creating the field of contemporary science and religion, argued that a dialogical approach, where science advances theology and vice versa, is the most fruitful.
John Polkinghorne adopts a dialogical approach in his 2011 book Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. In the book, Polkinghorne, who was a physicist before becoming an Anglican priest, pulls theology and science under the microscope, examining cosmology, determinism, consciousness, revelation and causality.
Science and theology, he observes, are more complementary than competitive. “Fundamentally, the two disciplines of enquiry should be thought of as cousins under the skin because of their shared truthful intent. Both operate under the rubric of critical realism, claiming the attainment of well-motivated beliefs, but not asserting the achievement of absolute certainty.”
Thanks to Polkinghorne and others, the relationship between science and theology is being revisited. It’s high time the church tells the old, old story of its historic, intellectually curious, evolving, science-loving theology.
Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.