Paths from Science Towards God 1: The Challenge of Science, a Resilient Faith

Christianity has changed considerably in the 2 millenia that have passed since the movement began with Jesus. Some even go so far as to propose that contemporary Christianity should be classified as a separate religion as historical Christianity, not to mention all the other forms of ‘Christianity’ that have existed in the centuries between, as well as alongside each other in various expressions.

More than almost any other religion, Christianity has elaborated a complex conceptual system of beliefs to give intellectual coherence to its intuitions and practices. What is affirmed, how it is affirmed and what sort of metaphors are used to elaborate its system of beliefs have, much more than most Christians would admit, continually changed – and sometimes with an abruptness comparable to that of the paradigm shifts said to characterise the history of science. The content of belief is not static, once for all ‘delivered to the Saints’, but is a dynamic corpus of ideas, beliefs and symbols which has historical continuity with the past but can take quite new forms. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

St. Thomas Aquinas, the 'Dumb Ox', is hailed as one of the greatest theologians who ever lived

These changes have often arisen as a response to challenges that the Church has had to face from the societies and cultures into which its adherents have sought to spread its message. Such challenges have been around since the Church’s infancy, when Saint Paul had to articulate an intrinsically Jewish message for a largely Hellenistic audience in the Roman colonies. The early Church Fathers and bishops then had to contend with Neoplatonism and Roman pagan cultures as Christianity became absorbed as part of the Empire following the conversion of Constantine, during which the Cappadocian Fathers played a role in formulating a Christian theology consistent with Neoplatonic philosophies. Contact with the Islamic world, and the rediscovery of the Aristotelian texts and its comprehensive philosophy, posed another challenge that was met head on by the likes of thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas through the synthesis of faith and reason, a system that would dominate Christian thinking till the present day. As Arthur Peacocke points out, these Christian thinkers ‘out-thought their opponents both inside and outside the Christian church.‘ As mentioned in another post, when Christianity encountered the Far Eastern worldviews of Cunfucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, it flourished through the absorption of those vastly different worldviews. The Enlightenment brought forth new challenges, and Christianity survives in its modern form, greatly influenced by Modernity with its confident absolutism, objectivism and individualism.

Today, Christian theologians are tasked with facing the dual challenges of postmodernism and science on two opposing fronts. This threatens to reduce the Christian faith to nothing more than a privatized religion that is concerned only with ‘the salvation of the soul’, while having little to do with reality and the public sphere of human discourse.

The meeting of intellectual challenges, painful though it may be at the time, in the long run invigorates Christian theology and thereby the Christian community at large. Today it is the scientific worldview that constitutes the challenge to received understandings of nature, humanity and God – in a way that can be initially devastating yet is potentially creative. The credibility of all religions is at stake under the impact of: new understandings of the natural world, of the place of humanity in it, and of the very nature of personhood; and even more corrosively – the loss of respect for the intellectual integrity of religious thinking in general and that of Christian theology in particular. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

So where do we go from here? This new series, based on my personal reading of Arthur Peacocke’s book of the same title, focuses on the challenges that science poses to theology, which, far from causing its demise, can be used to provide new theological insights to enrich the Christian faith. Though seemingly unrelated, this will be of paramount importance if Christianity is to weather the other storm of postmodernity. For if science came out on top in its tussle with postmodernity, there must be some robustness about it that theology can seek to learn from while maintaining its own unique method of questioning. In short, Paths from Science towards God is about how science affects theology and how we do theology. I end with a few more thoughts from Arthur Peacocke:

I think that both science and theology aim to depict reality, that they do so in metaphorical language with the use of models, and that their metaphors and models are revisable within the context of the continuous communities which have generated them. For it is also the aim of theology to tell as true a story as possible. Hence the religious quest must have intellectual integrity and take into account the realities unveiled by twentieth century science. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

For science is one of the major spurs goading believers in God into new paths for expressing their beliefs and commitments. Although the ride may be bumpy, the goal is itself unchanged. That end is simply God’s own self. If indeed God IS at all, the honest pursuit of truth cannot but lead to God.
~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

Theology, like science, is a search for intelligibility but, unlike science, it also seeks to meet the human need to discern meaning, which has generated religion as a social phenomenon in all human societies. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

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