Theological Accommodations to Science

In the often zealous effort to accommodate theology to the new developments in science, numerous nineteenth-century theologians and clergy seriously distorted their theology, the science that they were appropriating, or both.

One form of accommodation can be seen in the work of Baden Powell (1796-1860), an Anglican priest, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford from 182 7 to 1860, a lifelong theological apologist, and contributor of the essay "On the Study of the Evidences of Christianity" to the volume Essays and Reviews (1860), a book that sparked one of the most famous theological controversies of the century. Baden Powell also represents, in his long career as a Christian apologist, a variety of responses to the science-theology relation-ship.18 He was the first prominent Anglican clergyman to express publicly his support of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859).

Baden Powell began as rather a militant High Church defender of the harmony of the Christian Scriptures with science. He then became a noted defender of natural theology's rational "evidences" of Christianity, rejecting, however, the Paleyian design argument and insisting on science's demonstration of a wider, divine teleology. The uniformity of nature had itself become for Powell the only sound precondition for belief in a providential order. In his last years he shifted his position significantly, arguing that science can neither prove nor disprove the truths of theology - the two domains had to do with answering quite different questions. And the truths of Christian theology are based on faith alone.

Our interest here is in Baden Powell's long defense of Christian theology in The Connection of Natural and Divine Truth (1838). It represents an appeal to what was, for him, the only compelling evidence, namely, that grounded in a radically inductive natural theology. He was correct in his criticism of those who, like William Whewell - author of the third Bridgewater Treatise, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology - were injecting into their natural theology a priori assumptions about a Divine creative intention. No, Baden Powell insisted, any proof of God's existence from nature must be entirely independent of any reference to theological or teleological presumptions. Inferences drawn from the inductive study of nature and its connections, as observed in the work of naturalists such as Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire and, later, Darwin, alone are legitimate. Baden Powell was blunt: "The stability of natural theology rests on the demonstration of physical truth; and upon the assurance of the great doctrines of natural theology must all proof, and even all notions of a Revelation be essentially founded."19

Baden Powell's critics were, however, quick to remind him that the best that a naturalist's "physical truth" can come up with is a "cause" of all things - not a deity with the moral attributes of the Christian God, as David Hume had famously pointed out. Baden Powell's stringent demands on natural theology allowed him to infer no more than a vague evolutionary theism, surely not a sufficient foundation to support "all notions of a Revelation." His bold effort to build a Christian apologetic on the prior scientific inductions drawn from nature proved shaky. To his credit, he refused to distort science, but his radical accommodation to, and claims for, science left his Christian theology a mere shadow, unrecognized by his theological colleagues.

In the years immediately following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, there were numerous theologians who tried to accommodate Christianity to Darwin's evolution by denying that God's providence requires direct, periodic creative interventions. Rather, they argued, divine providence can better be seen in the Creator's original impress of his evolutionary plan on matter, which allows the creation's development to proceed on its own. This type of response is typified in Frederick Temple's (1821-1902) Bampton Lectures, preached at Oxford University in 1884. At the time, Temple was Bishop of Exeter. He had preached a conciliatory sermon on "the present relations of science and religion" before the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860, the same year that he contributed a chapter to the controversial Essays and Reviews. Temple was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury in 1896.

The crux of Temple's 1884 published lectures on The Relations between Religion and Science is his attempt to show that theology is strengthened by Darwinism. In Temple's view, what is touched by Darwin's evolutionary doctrine "is not the evidence of design but the mode in which design was executed."20 In an often cited passage, Temple compares Darwin's progressionist view with the less satisfactory notion of God's direct acts of creation. In the latter case "the Creator made the animals at once such as they now are," while in Darwin's evolutionary view, God impressed on certain particles of matter which, either at the beginning or at some point in the history of His creation He endowed with life, such inherent powers that in the ordinary course of time living creatures such as at present were developed. The creative power remains the same in either case; the design with which that creative power was exercized remains the same. He did not make the things we may say; no, but He made them make themselves. And surely this rather adds than withdraws force from the great argument.21 (Italics added.)

Temple thought it more befitting the Creator that He impressed His will once and for all on the Creation "than by special acts of creation to be perpetually modifying what He had previously made."22 And he was confident that the foundations of theology were secure because scientific materialism could never explain the two critical theological connections: God's original creation and the unique reality of the human soul or spirit. However, it appeared to some theologians that the good bishop believed these two supernatural acts to be the sufficient compass of God's direct commerce with the world. One critic was Aubrey Moore (18481890), Anglican priest, theological tutor at Oxford, and contributor to Lux Mundi (1889), the standard bearer of a new Anglo-Catholic Liberalism. Moore was theologically orthodox and knowledgeable about science. He was Curator of the Botanic Gardens in Oxford and welcomed Darwin's theory. Moore perceived current theological apologetic as falling into two disastrous errors. One was dualism, which defended a false antithesis between a natural evolution and a supernatural creation of species. Moore argued for an alternative that he called "supernatural evolution" or "natural creation." He regretted the fact that theological dualists were willing to give the scientists autonomy over the whole territory of nature's processes, which the scientists were delighted to accept. They were certain, of course, that as scientific knowledge increases its scope, the theologian's sphere of activity shrinks to inconsequence.

The second theological error was to lapse into a sub-Christian deism. This was the theological price paid by Bishop Temple in his commendable but misguided effort to reconcile theology and Darwinism. Moore considered Temple's comments about God impressing his will "once for all" on His creation, and God's providing for nature's variety by "His one original impress," to be hardly Christian. "It is one thing," Moore points out, "to speak of God as 'declaring the end from the beginning,' it is another to use language which seems to imply ... that God withdraws Himself from his Creation and leaves it to evolve itself."23 Moore thought Darwin had "done good service in overthrowing the dogma of special creations" and the depiction of God as a kind of "absentee landlord." He regarded Darwin's theory as infinitely more Christian than the various theories of "Special Creation," since Darwin's evolution allowed for a Divine immanence in nature. Any theory of creation that implies occasional Divine interventions also "implies as its correlative a theory of ordinary absence." Nothing, in Moore's estimation, was more opposed to the language of the Bible and the Church Fathers. "Cataclysmal geology and special creation are the scientific analogue of Deism. Order, development, law, are the analogue of the Christian view of God."24

Moore was right about Temple. "Either God is everywhere present in nature or he is nowhere." God does not "delegate His power to demigods called 'second causes.' "25 Temple had distorted Christian doctrine while seriously misreading Darwin. But Moore's learned critique also shows how complex and full of traps these encounters were, since Moore failed to recognize that Darwin's position was itself semi-deistic.26 Darwin spoke of divine laws, but he also left the details of the evolutionary process to chance, suggesting, at best, a finite God - though one less responsible for the truly devilish aspects of evolution.

Our final illustration of a theologian's adjustments and compromises aimed at reconciling Christianity with science is Lyman Abbott (1835-1922), an American Christian evolutionist who occupied the famous pulpit of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, earlier occupied by the great preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Few religious writers exerted a greater influence on the American public in the latter years of the nineteenth century than did Lyman Abbott. He was something of a national patriarch.27

Abbott saw himself as an evolutionist, but not a Darwinian, since he identified the latter with inevitable struggle and the survival of the fittest. Like Henry Drummond, he believed that the evolutionary laws discovered in nature were identical with the laws of the spiritual life and that God is only properly understood in evolutionary and immanentist terms. The old feudal hierarchical model must be cast aside. God resides in the world of nature; and the laws of nature are the laws of God's own being. Using these and other evolutionary preconceptions, Abbott proceeded to reinterpret Christian beliefs. The Bible was not to be seen as a totality but as "the history of the growth of man's consciousness of God,"28 and the development of Semitic religion in the Bible "a process of natural selection."29 His belief in progress from animal instinct to human virtue demanded that he reject the traditional Christian doctrines of the Fall and redemption. "Evolution declares that all life begins at a lower stage and issues in a gradual development into a higher."30 Sin is "the conscious and deliberate descent of the individual soul from the vantage ground of a higher life to the life of an animal."31

Abbott viewed spiritual progress as a historical fact; the goal of this spiritual evolution is "the full incarnating of Christ in humanity," since Christ came not only to exhibit God's being and will to humanity, "but [also] to evolve the latent divinity which he has implanted in us."32 Abbott thus emphasized the likeness between God and humanity, writing that "the difference between God and man is a difference not in essential nature," since, as he believed, the Bible teaches that "in their essential nature they are the same."33 He saw history as revealing the slow but certain victory of Christian love and fraternal democracy over selfish individualism: "recreating the individual; through the individual constituting a church; and by the church transforming human society into a kingdom of God."34

Abbott's optimistic Christian progressivism was praised by many as a triumphant reconception of Christianity and a successful reconciliation of theology and science. His critics, on the other hand, saw his effort as costly, paid for by a substantial loss of Christian substance. His interpretation of the Bible was highly questionable; his radical divine immanence and divinizing of humanity were, many judged, closer to Pantheism than Christian theism. His notion of sin and redemption was viewed as shallow and naively voluntaristic, failing to plumb the predicament of sin or the necessity of grace.

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