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Theology and Science in the Postmodern World: Introduction

Theology and Science in the Postmodern World:
A Theo-Poetic Thought Experiment

After all the seas are cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass[1]

I. Theology and Science in a Postmodern Age: Conflict, Convergence Or…?

The relationship between theology and other forms of human wisdom and inquiry has always been one that is tenuous at best. The Christian tradition has, from its inception stood in tension with the ‘wisdom of the world’ (1 Cor. 1:20). Moreover, the advent of modern science[2] has put theology into a particularly difficult place in relation to the ‘wider wisdom.’ Since the Enlightenment, throughout Western culture, the scientific tradition has for the most part carried the day as the final arbiter of what forms of belief are rationally and intellectually acceptable.[3] The fact of this dominance (or domination) of scientific reasoning over other forms of human inquiry (such as theology) would be hard to deny. Modernity, with its radical faith in the power of scientific (thus technological) progress, fully established itself throughout the last three centuries as the last court of appeals in what counts as “facts.”[4]

This state of things has necessarily put Christian theologians in a tough spot. Theologians have offered a number of responses to the problem of making theological claims seem viable in an age dominated by the scientific tradition. Some theologians have argued that the proper response to science is to show how modern science, if properly done, not only does not conflict with theology, but actually supports Christianity’s claims. This position has of course been the foundation of evidential apologetics and ‘creation-science’ the most recent and sophisticated form being the ‘intelligent design’ movement.
[5] Other views of theology and science have attempted to segregate the two disciplines from one another, arguing that they deal with subject matter that is fundamentally different and therefore should be kept separate. Likewise, other positions have argued that there may be a form of “qualified agreement” between theology and science or that theology and science should rather become “equal partners in theorizing” about reality.[6]

In this essay, I wish to contend that all these theological responses (or capitulations) to the scientific tradition are fundamentally wrongheaded. My use of the term “scientific tradition” is intentional. Scientific reasoning has for the most part been written a blank check by theology, philosophy and Western culture in general as a discipline that is objective, disinterested and universal. However, it is exactly such presuppositions that I wish to call into question. The scientific tradition, like the Christian tradition or any other tradition of inquiry is inescapably local, limited, particular and necessarily embodied in a community of practitioners bound by a common faith.[7] Most unfortunately for theology, the considerable prestige and dominance of the scientific tradition in the modern world has, for the most part set the agenda for theology, both liberal and conservative.[8] This current state of affairs has come about largely because Christian theology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries adopted uncritically the philosophical and cultural ideals of modernity.[9] Given the biblical, theological, ethical, missiological and philosophical critiques of the assumptions of modernity that have been articulated, it seems pertinent to reevaluate the standard evangelical modernist responses to science.[10]

However, prior to engaging the standard evangelical responses to modern science, a point of clarification is in order. In the following account, I am seeking primarily to engage the physical (or ‘natural’) rather than the social sciences.[11] While the thrust of my critique will doubtless have impact on the latter as well, I will be focusing in particular on the forms of scientific inquiry that seek to comprehend the origin and nature of the universe and bring it under the control of humanity. This is indeed the thrust of the modern project. The Cartesian project of modernity that sought to make humankind “lords and possessors of nature” is the fundamental presupposition of modern science and technology.[12] Beyond question, this aim has shaped the nature of Western science and society and has correspondingly shaped theological responses to the challenge of science. Thus, for the purpose of this study I will focus primarily on science as that discipline arising from the Enlightenment and modernity that seeks to discover through the scientific method the nature and origin of reality. The question of origins will become especially crucial, as that has been a central point of conflict between theology and the scientific community. This will involve a critique of the standard evangelical approach(es), as well as an articulation of an alternative paradigm for engaging theology and science that takes full account of the force of the postmodern critique and the theological resources of the Christian tradition.

To this end, I will attempt to outline and critique some samples of the most nuanced and articulate evangelical approaches to relating theology and science. Following this, I will turn to an examination of the modern understanding of the nature of science itself. I w
ill examine science from the perspective of postmodern philosophy of science showing how the modernist conception of the very nature of science is flawed and needs reworking. After examining the ‘scientific’ case against the modern understanding of science, I will turn to the resources of Christian theology – utilizing the particular resources of biblical theology, missiology and systematic theology – to bring to bear a theological critique of the modernist conception of science. In this way I will set forth a theological paradigm, which takes full stock of the postmodern critique and opens up possibilities for theology to free itself from its domestication to modernist conceptions of science. Such a perspective will offer an ideal paradigm for facilitating the church’s witness to the postmodern generation that God is calling us to serve.

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[1] Cited in Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), x.

[2] Throughout this paper, I interact with science as it has come to be understood in its post-Enlightenment, modernist context. There are certainly forms of scientific reasoning that existed prior to this period in Western history, however, the Enlightenment understanding of human reason and reality has been the most decisive factor in shaping the current conception of what science is. There are certainly valuable theological explorations that could be made into the relationship between theology and science in premodern periods. However, given the pervasive influence of the Enlightenment on the modern conception of science, that is what will occupy me in this essay. For an overview of the historical relationship between theology and science, see Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 220-244.

[3] Perhaps the crucial example of the monopoly of science in relation to theology is that of Rudolph Bultmann and his project of demythologization. Bultmann, as an obedient child of the Enlightenment, simply assumed that modern, critical science should stand as judge, jury and executioner in regard to what claims theology, and specifically the Bible could make.

[4] The modern dichotomy between “fact” and “value” is a distinction that depends entirely on this understanding of science as the sole arbiter of “facts.” By limiting “facts” to what is ascertainable on the basis of the scientific tradition, modern society effectively bracketed out claims of other traditions, particularly theological claims. For an account of this see Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 65-94.

[5] For a comprehensive statement of “intelligent design,” see William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

[6] For presentations of all these views see Richard F. Carlson, ed., Science and Christianity: Four Views (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[7] For a masterful account of the nature of human reasoning as being bound to particular narratives and traditions, see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

[8] For a good account of how both liberalism and fundamentalism operated within the paradigms of modern scientific reasoning, see Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996).

[9] Such a characterization should by no means be taken as monolithic, either in regard to the response of theology to modernity, or the nature of modernism itself. Nevertheless, the fact that theology was in some crucial respects domesticated by modernism is beyond question. See Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001), chs. 1-2; Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), ch. 5.

[10] The biblical, theological, ethical and philosophical critiques of modernity are far too many to cite in full here. The following respective works are worthy of consultation. Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993); J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995); Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983); A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981); Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion and Ethics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997); Robert C. Greer, Mapping Postmodernism: A Survey of Christian Options (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2003); Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995); Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism.

[11] For theological critiques of the social sciences, see Colin E. Gunton, The One, The Three and The Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990).

[12] On this see Middleton and. Walsh, Truth is
Stranger than it Used to Be, 15-22.

6 Comments

  1. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    This sounds great. I have instinctually felt like much of theology’s reasoning about how to relate to science has been capitulation. I’m looking forward to seeing how you work this out.

    Just a note: your footnote system is not working. The anchors are referencing the blog post creation/editing page.

    Saturday, December 2, 2006 at 4:53 am | Permalink
  2. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Halden,
    Some very good thoughts here. I’m also looking forward to your future posts.

    Saturday, December 2, 2006 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  3. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    This looks good, Halden. I share most of your opinions on the subject. I would, however, caution against replacing one paradigm (modern) with another (postmodern), especially since the so-called “postmodern critique” is hardly so monolithic and stable as many people make it out to be (cf. Grenz and Franke). It seems you are only appropriating “postmodern” critiques of modernity and thus still privileging what the Christian tradition has to say on the subject. I think Christianity has at least as much to say against those who would make postmodernity the answer for modernity.

    All that is to say, I think you will need to explain what exactly you mean by “the postmodern world.” Is there such a thing? I suspect not. But I recognize that there are many who would like to think so, and if it helps to think of such a world in analyzing and critiquing modernity, have at it.

    Monday, December 4, 2006 at 9:49 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Fair enough. In posts to follow, hopefully I’ll fill that out somewhat. The critiques I deal with come from Polanyi and Kuhn specifically and I think they deal with the heart of these issues.

    But you’re right, there isn’t “the postmodern critique” per se, nor am I invested in establishing such a stability where indeed none exisits.

    By “postmodern world” I am refering more to the intellectional and social climate of the western world as reflected in culture and in contemporary philosophies. So this is a contextual theology, but one that doesn’t try to replace the modern with the postmodern rather, one that seeks to embedd theology in the social context that is the church, where Christ is present and the Spirit active.

    Monday, December 4, 2006 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    Halden,

    What an ambitious undertaking! I wish you all the best. This is a topic that I have some interest in, but have not had occasion to dedicate time to as of yet. Do you have a place planned in this series for thinkers such as T.F. Torrance and John Polkinghorne?

    Tuesday, December 5, 2006 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  6. Matthew M. wrote:

    It is interesting to see someone try to put theological reasoning before scientific. While it is true that science is a form of religion in itself with a foundation of accepted but unprovable assumptions, it is also true that the tools of logic also employ unprovable assumptions. After all, we all accept that the relationship between cause and effect is real. No one wants to entertain the possibility of its unreality. Much of logic employs the cause/effect concept.
    The biggest problem you will encounter is the separation of the Creator from the created. Too much of what we believe is tied up to linguistic symbology which cannot leap the gap between the observable world and God. God is a person (the baggage of localization of person, psyche, personality, action attached to “person” cannot be properly said of God). Heaven is a place (again the concept of locality which must fail).
    There cannot be a dialogue of meaningful nature between something grounded in physicality and something grounded outside of physicality. No one has words to express the non-physical. All the words we have are anchored in symbolizing the physical. There results nothing but misunderstanding and recrimination when we attempt a dialogue between science and faith. The faithful decry the scientists as distorting the meaning of their assertions and the scientists cannot find their way beyond the basic nature of the symbol set used to express the inexpressible.
    Don’t get me wrong. I am a Christian and I do science. They are not opposed to one another, they are only looking at two different subjects. The situation is much like that of the English and the Irish: two great nations separated by a common language. The poor theologian can hardly say anything because of the defect of language in expressing the transcendant. No matter how he tries, what he says is heretical by defect, omision or whatever. Much as I would wish a better tool for communicating the realities of God and her relationship with humanity, we have nothing to substitute.
    The most important task is to convince the fundamentalists that we who do science are not opposed to religion, or God, or faith. It’s just that science is concentrating on “how”, and is unconcerned with “who”.

    Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

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