Theology and Science as Incommensurate Domains

The supposition that theology and science are wholly independent spheres was not especially popular in the nineteenth century. Even biblical literalists and sophisticated conservative theologians such as the American Presbyterian Charles Hodge spoke of their "higher unity," though this unity might appear veiled to present observers.

There were, however, some theologians who held that while theology and science do not collide with one another, they are, nonetheless, disparate spheres of knowledge and truth. While there should be no conflict, neither should attempts be made to conjoin them or to explore the ways in which they can be seen to "correspond." The idea that theology and science are incommensurate domains is exemplified in the writings of the eminent Roman Catholic theologian John Henry Newman. It is also a crucial theme in Protestant Ritschlian theology in Germany in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. As we will see, however, Newman and the German Ritschlians build their arguments on very different foundational principles, even though their conclusions about theology and the sciences are similar.

The English Roman Catholic theologian John Henry, Cardinal Newman (18011890), was an influential priest in the Church of England before his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845. In 1879 he was named a Cardinal of the Church by Pope Leo XIII. In a series of lectures on Catholic education, some written as early as 1852, Newman addressed the relationship between Catholic theology and the physical sciences. The lectures later became part of Newman's famous book The Idea of a University (1873). Newman argues that Catholic theology and science pursue quite different and independent methods of investigation:

Induction is the instrument of Physics, and deduction only is the instrument of Theology. There the simple question is, What is revealed? All doctrinal knowledge flows from one fountain head. If we are able to enlarge our view and multiply our propositions, it must be merely by the comparison and adjustment of the original truths; if we would solve new questions, it must be by consulting old answers. The notion of doctrinal knowledge absolutely novel... is intolerable to Catholic ears The Divine Voice has spoken once for all, and the only question is about its meaning.12

According to Newman, Christian revelation is the singular source of Christian truth, and "the Apostles its sole depository."13 And problems emerge when the theologian adopts the inductive method that, Newman argues, should be limited to the scientific accumulation of new knowledge of nature but, in the theologian's hand, is used to judge or to confirm Christian revelation. Newman sees this as the great danger of all natural theology, as well as modern Protestant theology. Both search for "correspondences" between biblical revelation and scientific fact. The God of natural theology, or "physical theology" as Newman calls it, is the God of neither Christian revelation nor Christian theology. In theological investigations as such, "physics must be excluded." Science and theology must be recognized as different ways of knowing:

The theologian speaking of Divine Omnipotence, for the time simply ignores the laws of nature as existing restraints upon its exercize; and the physical philosopher, on the other hand, in his experiments upon natural phenomena, is simply ascertaining those laws, putting aside the question of that Omnipotence.14

Some theologians associated with Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) in Germany also insisted that Christian theology is independent of scientific developments, whether they be in the natural sciences or in the conclusions of scientific historiography. Ritschl taught at Bonn and, after 1864, at Gottingen, where he devoted more of his time to systematic theology.

The key to Ritschl's theology,15 and to his understanding of the relation between theology and science, is located in his theory of "value judgments," which he derived largely from Immanuel Kant's doctrine of how the mind receives impressions from the world of phenomena, as this doctrine was modified by the philosopher R. H. Lotze (1817-1881). On the one hand, the mind judges sensations and impressions according to the causal relations in an objective (scientific) system of nature. On the other hand, the mind receives these sensations according to their worth to the individual. The latter is the source of the mind's knowledge of value. Causal judgments and value judgments work simultaneously; therefore, no form of scientific knowledge is completely disinterested. Since value judgments are determinative in all causal knowledge of the world, Ritschl distinguishes between what he calls "concomitant" and "independent" value judgments. The former are necessary in all theoretical cognition, as in technical observation and operations, while the latter are perceptions of moral ends, their effects and hindrances. Theology has to do with that class of independent value judgments where moral worth is determinative, not incidental, for the individual. Theology therefore recognizes the inherent existential involvement of the self in genuine ethical and theological knowledge. Science and theology thus represent, for Ritschl, the distinct domains of "fact" and "value," of "nature" and "spirit." It would be quite wrong, however, to speak of the mode of cognition of nature (science) and that of value (religion) as objective and subjective. Both modes of cognition give us real, objective, though quite different, knowledge.

Ritschl proceeds to apply these epistemological principles to the Christian doctrine of God as revealed in the historical person of Jesus Christ. God cannot be known abstractly as, for example, in the natural theologian's cosmological proof of a first cause. For the Christian, God is known only in His worth for us as revealed in the work of Christ - that is, as the guarantor of our victory over nature's necessity - and as appropriated by faith. For Ritschl, faith is an absolutely necessary condition for any knowledge of God and, therefore, the Christian claim regarding Jesus as the Christ cannot be established by scientific-historical (i.e., neutral) facts - for there are no neutral, disinterested historical facts. A scientific description of the crucifixion can make certain judgments of fact about the person Jesus. But it would be quite misleading to say that such judgments of fact do not include overt or covert judgments of value, for the two forms of judgment operate simultaneously. And, in Ritschl's view, science exceeds its limits if it claims to give a "truer" judgment of Jesus' worth. Therefore, Ritschl opposed the nineteenth-century "back to Jesus" movement when it was premised on the doctrines of historical positivism.

Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922) was the first influential theologian to declare publicly his support of Ritschl's program.16 He did so because Ritschl had repudiated theology's dependence on abstract metaphysics and natural theology and had recognized the dangers in the growing hegemony of scientific naturalism. These concerns united in Herrmann's appeal to the Kantian critique of metaphysics, in his attack on the pretensions of science, and in his defense of the moral foundation of faith. Herrmann spent most of his career at Marburg - then the center of Neo-Kantian philosophy - and was the teacher of both Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. In two of his works, Metaphysics in Theology (1876) and Religion in Relation to Knowledge of the World and Morality (1879), he developed his argument that science and theology are two independent spheres with entirely different foundations.

Science is restricted to the causal relationships between phenomena. Theology answers the moral question of how the world is to be judged if there really is to be a highest Good, that is, God as the guarantor of the meaning and purpose of life. Within its proper limits science is free to hold sway. and, in Herrmann's judgment, even a mechanistic view of nature's processes need not be a threat to, or opposed by, theology. Science must be resisted only when it exceeds its bounds and imposes itself on the realm of human meanings and values. The task of Christian theology is, then, to show that the problems encountered in the realm of the human spirit are solved when the individual appropriates what Christianity teaches and actively participates in the Christian moral view of the world, namely, that both nature and spirit are under the teleological guidance of a personal, loving God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Christians judge the world of nature not as benignly indifferent to human values and purposes, but rather as filled with moral and spiritual meaning, and see themselves as free agents with a moral vocation and destiny.

In Herrmann's dualism of science (knowledge of facts) and theology (moral freedom and meaning), we see a sophisticated position that is taken up not only by his students Barth and Bultmann, but also more generally by twentieth-century religious Existentialism. Parenthetically, this is the relationship defended by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who, in his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1921) and Philosophical Investigations (1953), proposes a Kantian type of dualism of the independent domains of science and moral judgment by means of a profound critique of language. A significant theological legacy of the Ritschlian, particularly the Herrmannian, dualism of science and religion is the almost complete isolation of theology from the concerns raised by science, as well as a lack of interest in the natural world, during the entire first half of the twentieth century.17

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