Mutual Independence

One important way in which theologies have sought to establish the complete and mutual independence of science and religion is through some version of the distinction between nature and spirit. The foundations of modern efforts to enforce a separation between the concerns of science and theology lie in the thought of such writers as Descartes and Kant. However, it can be argued that the grounds for such a divorce lie deep in early reactions to the complaint that emerging natural science disturbs biblical truth. Galileo contends (in defence of Copernicanism against the literal meaning of famous biblical passages such as Joshua 10:13) that Scripture teaches us how to get to heaven and not how heaven goes. Galileo asserts the principle of accommodation (Galileo 1973:32), whereby it is understood that the physical truths implied or stated in Scripture are matched to the limitations of its audience's understanding. They may indeed be misleading or false if that understanding is primitive, yet physical falsehood does not disturb the message of personal salvation which is revealed. As Moltmann has noted, such efforts at accommodation were linked with the Reformed stress on the Gospel as a drama of personal salvation, with the result that 'Theology's domain became the soul's assurance of salvation in the inner citadel of the heart' (Moltmann 1985:35).

It is but a short step to the existentialist and personalist theologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their stress on a world of human meaning as the locus of theology, while nature is abandoned to the sciences. Existentialist and personalist theologies have mirrored what has happened to religion as a whole in Western culture and to theology in the realm of learning. Anthropologists distinguish between cosmocentric and anthropocentric functions religion may play in society. Many tribal religious systems, they allege, provide their peoples with a cosmology which explains their world. The gods enter into human discourse as the explanation of what happens in the world of nature. In a modern culture this cosmological role is played by the sciences but this still leaves religion to play the further part of speaking of the questions of human and personal meaning which remain after the course of the world's events is explained. Indeed, the very impersonality of the causes of those events established by science threatens to make questions of meaning more urgent and more difficult to answer. However, the question which must be raised is how theology can tackle these problems of meaning if it is completely divorced from questions of a cosmological kind.

The charge against any attempt to divorce theology from science is that answers to questions of human meaning are liable to have at least some implications, however vague, for cosmological thought. If, for example, in the manner of an existentialist, we locate human meaning and theological symbol in the quest for authentic existence, we presuppose the ability of the embodied human person to exhibit free action and a moral and cognitive transcendence. Yet only some accounts of the nature of the world and human evolution will allow these things. At the point of human nature and its place in the cosmos, cosmocentric and anthropocentric concerns will meet. Existentialist and wholly personalist theologies appear to see the problem of the human being's place in nature as calling for so little reflection only because they already assume an answer to it. They assume a radical dualism in which the realms of nature and spirit do not intersect. The former is given over to lifeless mechanism and the latter to a radical, materially ungrounded freedom. Only thus can it become intelligible how such theologies can view the redemption of the individual as being unconnected with the redemption of the universe.

The argument offered implies that theology must have connections, however tenuous, with cosmology. Its thrust is summed up in Moltmann's pithy conclusion: 'If God is not the Creator of the world, he cannot be my Creator either' (Moltmann 1985:36). That theology has implications for, and must in turn be informed by, the study of the cosmos has somehow to be kept in tension with belief in the proper autonomy of the natural sciences. It is arguable that the Christian doctrine of creation entails the end of a detailed cosmocentric function for religion. Creation banishes the gods from the world, tells us that no part of nature is divine and can imply that the reason in the world is open to discovery by the reason in human persons. Thus the autonomy of the sciences is suggested by one, plausible, theological account of creation. Yet this autonomy cannot be absolute. If the autonomous sciences reach conclusions which are incompatible with the thoughts that God is the creator of the universe they study and that human redemption takes place in this universe, theology must be prepared to offer its own critique of these conclusions. It must feel sure that it has the ground from which that critique can seem relevant and persuasive.

In the light of the above, what appears wrong with 'creation science' is not that it is ready to speak from theological perceptions to limitations in biological thought, but that the ground from which it utters is so naively limited and its critique of biology so stupid and uncomprehending. Its errors should not be taken as proof that science and theology have nothing to do with one another. Theological critique is in order where popularizers of neo-Darwinist socio-biology tell us that human beings are mere machines programmed to act by their selfish genes (Dawkins 1976), or that chance so rules the processes of natural selection that any idea that there can be a purpose to the overall history of life is mistaken (Monod 1974). The first of these ideas would destroy the cognitive and moral transcendence which enables human beings to be capable and worthy of salvation. The second seems plainly incompatible with the notions of creation and providence. Theology must react to such ideas by balancing its belief in the autonomy of scientific reason against its belief in the unity of reason. That is to say, granted that Dawkins and Monod use biological premises to pronounce on areas which are of direct concern to theology and allied disciplines (such as philosophy), theology should hope that scientific or other errors can be found in their conclusions. It is easy enough to show that the demonic portrayal of human life in Dawkins is self-refuting (as are all other reductive philosophies of the human person). They are put forward as opinions for which their authors are responsible and for which they feel reasons can be offered. Yet if they are true, no human selves could stand in that relation to ideas and the very scientific process that fostered them would have been impossible. As to the claim that evolution reveals a world caught between iron necessity and pure chance, the careful study of the nature of chance processes in the light of statistical theory by D.J. Bartholomew (Bartholomew 1984) has shown that randomness in the detailed processes of evolutionary transformation is quite compatible with (and indeed will tend to produce) significant pattern on the larger level of the world's history.

The dual emphasis on the underlying unity but autonomous application of reason produces the need for the kind of dialogue between theology and science so briefly outlined above. Another way of reaching the same conclusion stems from the recognition that it is in the nature of the natural sciences to ask questions about and suggest answers to large-scale questions of human meaning, in addition to their role as searchers after reliable beliefs about the detailed processes of the cosmos. It appears inescapable that enquiries in physical cosmology and biology will provoke thought about the meaning of cosmic, animal and human history. If we see science as a humane enterprise then the fact that its speculations spill over into the realms of ethics, philosophy and theology is not surprising (see Midgley 1985). Seen in this light, it is then no aberration that evolutionary theory has produced what are to all intents and purposes substitute religions. Dialogue between the sciences and those disciplines, such as theology, concerned with human meaning is, all things considered, inevitable.

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