Paths from Science towards God 2: From Science to a New Way of Doing Theology

As mentioned in the first part of the series, theology faces the dual challenge of both modern intellectualism and postmodernity.

By the criteria of reasonableness, theology in the twentieth century has been weighed in the balance of modern intellectual inquiry and found wanting, not only by many of those with a scientific training but also by those trained in philosophical and historical critical methods. The content of theology has become regarded as not worthy of reasonable assent by modern thinkers as inheritors of the Enlightenment – however much respect the person of Jesus of Nazareth and Christian ethics might command. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

More recently the intellectual climate has changed, the attitudes of postmodernist thinkers apparently softening towards theology. This is because in a pluralistic society, postmodernist attitudes have allowed theology – in company with most other metaphysically based systems of thought – not excluding science – to be regarded as a permitted, socially contextualised discourse within religious communities, but to make no claim to relate to any general, public realities. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

The gale of postmodernism blows in from who knows what alien strand and not only removes, it would claim, any need for a bridge between science and theology, but pulverises the foundations on each side of that putative bridge into shifting quicksands. Or so it is said. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

How did science fare in the face of postmodernity, in its relentless dismantling of all metanarratives and all forms of foundationalism, including its critique of any claims to objectivity? The conscensus is that science not only survived, but did well in the face of it all:

Scientists will point out that even the postmodernist literary critic or sociologist relies on solid-state physics being true enough for the chips in his PC to function as a word processor. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

There is no question that science in itself is fallible, for its history is rife with mistakes and misinterpretations. Postmodernism is right in pointing out that all facts are also interpreted facts. And scientists constantly use simplified models as representations of a much more complex world. But we have to admit that science has made genuine progress in the last couple of hundred years, and is painting an increasingly accurate picture of the world and universe in which we live. Scientists still believe that they are exploring reality as it is.

They do not assert that terms in scientific theories are literal descriptions of the entities, structures and processes to which they refer; that there are facts to which all scientific propositions correspond; and that scientific language can exhaustively describe the external world. I judge that, as against some other philosophies of science, realism is still the majority view of philosophically informed practising scientists, who would not pursue their exacting profession if they did not think they were uncovering real aspects of the underlying mechanisms and relationships in the natural world. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

How did science do it? How did it manage to survive this ‘gale of postmodernism’?

1. Science is based on the most basic of human cognitive processes – common sense

The scientific method is not radically different from the rational attitude in everyday life or other domains of human knowledge. Detectives, archaeologists and plumbers – indeed, all human beings – use the same basic methods of induction, deduction, inference and assessment of evidence as do scientists. Science just does it more systematically and through carefully contrived experiments, which are often not available in other spheres of human activity. There is a similarity in basic approach, as becomes even more evident when the science is concerned with inferring the nature of past events, as in evolutionary biology and geology. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

2. Science relies on reasonableness through inference to the best explanation (IBE) – choosing the ‘theory’ that best explains the data – where best means it is the most comprehensive (provides an explanation that accounts for a diverse range of previously unconnected facts), fruitful (in suggesting new insights that can be further tested or that lead to new discoveries), cogent (fits with other background knowledge and theories), coherent and consistent (no self-contradictions) and elegant (avoiding unnecessary complexity).

3. Science is susceptible to revision and even replacement as new experiments, and so new knowledge, impinge upon its outer edges. In other words, science is a self-correcting enterprise. There is no dogma, authority or theory whose validity cannot be questioned, no matter how succesful they have been in the past.

What about theology? What can it learn from science’s methods, while staying true to its own unique way of searching for the truth? How can theology withstand modern intellectual scrutiny and hold its ground against the pounding winds of postmodernism?

Arthur Peacocke suggests a new model for doing theology:

Traditional Christian theology (T) is derived from classical revelatory experience (CRE) i.e. Scripture and tradition.

CRE –> T

In this day and age, a revised Christian theology (RT) must also take into account what we know about the world and humanity as revealed by the sciences (S).

S + CRE –> RT

Eventually, however, we must also consider what other world religions (WR) have to say about reality, and learn from them the ways in which they relate to science, to form a global theology (GT)

S + CRE + WR –> GT

Theology needs to be truthful, free and critical; and to deal with and interpret the realities of all that constitutes the world, especially human beings and their inner lives. Dare theology, by using IBE, enter the fray of contemporary intellectual exchange and stand up and survive in its own right? To do so, it has to become an open exploration in which nothing is unrevisable. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

We have to take into account that the current study of all religions and their sacred resources – especially Christianity with its distinctive historical foundations and its Bible – has been revolutionized over the last 150 years by critical historical, archaeological and literary investigations. Neither the Christian New Testament nor the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament can now be read unreservedly as containing, in their historical narratives, veridical history and the actual words of those depicted as uttering or writing them. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

For it will never again in Western culture be intellectually defensible simply to claim authority for propositions by asserting that they are ‘biblical’. They have to stand on their own feet as warrantable and justified. This stance towards the biblical literature will be presumed in what follows – not least because it is the only fair-minded and open one from which plausibly to set out on any exploration towards God today. Interestingly, modern investigations demonstrate that the biblical authors and redactors themselves again and again did not hesitate to revise and reinterpret their biblical predecessors – the biblical ‘tradition’ is one of continuous dialogue with the past and frequent revision of it. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Toward God

Is this the route that theology must take? Are there other ways? Definitely food for thought…

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5 thoughts on “Paths from Science towards God 2: From Science to a New Way of Doing Theology

  1. Hi Fr. Robert,

    Thanks for all your thoughtful and friendly questions! I really appreciate it. It helps keep me on my toes and think more about what i believe and accept as my own ‘theology’.

    I’ll have a look at that article and get back to you… time to sleep – and I’ve been busy with lots of work lately! 🙂

    God bless!

  2. Hi Fr. Robert,

    I’ve finally had the chance to look at the link (it’s been a really busy two months for me!). Hopefully I can get back to blogging consistently again.

    Anyway, I guess my view in the list would be ‘theistic evolution’. To me (and many others as well), the other positions are untenable in the light of scientific knowledge. And though the article says this gives too much credit to geologists, the fact is that physicists, geologists, evolutionary biologists and astronomers all come up with a surprisingly consistent estimate based on totally unrelated methods.

    Again, the theistic evolutionist position has its own tensions and issues to sort out as well, i.e. the existence of suffering and death long before there were any humans. And some would say that people like us put science above Scripture. I would say instead that for me, science ‘informs my interpretation of scripture’. 🙂

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