‘Sundays are your busy day, eh vicar?’ I cannot imagine that anyone in full time ministry would have not heard this one before. It may be funny (at least the first time) but it reflects a very common idea in our society today: religion happens on a Sunday, and the rest of life, including business, commerce and science, happens elsewhere and at another time. This divided way of thinking is part of the landscape now for the science and religion debates with a loud minority protesting that the two have no place in fraternising with one another. But this idea does a great disservice not only to contemporary thinking, but also misrepresents the historical relationship between ideas about God and the study of the natural world.
The history of science and religion has been caricatured by New Atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. For them, the role of science as a contributor to theological thinking has been as a ‘David’ picking a fight with a ‘Goliath’. Contrary to this, history shows a complex and nuanced picture with its beginnings in the Greek period where science was called Natural philosophy, the love of wisdom regarding the natural world. There are a litany of theologians who engaged in and contributed over the past two millennia to what we now call science, such as Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln and the Venerable Bede. In the 13th century the great works of Aristotle, which included nearly everything that was known about the natural world, were rediscovered in the emerging universities of western Europe, studied by churchmen and Christianised. The scientific revolution in this country was largely led by religious men such as Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon. Indeed, the question of how science has contributed to theological thinking is just asking for a reference to be made to the, ‘What has Rome ever done for us?’ sketch in the Life of Brian.
Let’s just take a couple of examples from the contemporary scientific scene. The Big Bang cosmological theory is widely accepted. It describes how the universe began in a cataclysmic explosion 13.7 billion years ago when everything emerged from a single point of immense density at unimaginable temperatures. Around 10 million ago planets formed and life began on earth about 3.8 billion years ago. This description is qualitatively at odds with a literal reading of Genesis 1. However, there are many ways in which Big Bang science has been interwoven into theological thinking. For example, the theory shows that the universe is rational, and there is no scientific reason for this to be the case. The unity, beauty and comprehensibility revealed in the science have led some to profound theological reflections. For example, Paul Dirac (1902-84), the British physicist writes that ‘God used beautiful mathematics in creating his world’.
For the scientist, priest and theologian John Polkinghorne, the rationality of the world and the rationality of our minds are linked in his idea of God as ‘the common ground of our rationality’. In this theological model drawn from the science, God is not there simply to meddle in the workings of each moment, but rather is the background of everything.
Cosmology is a great illustration of a branch of science asking questions that now resonated strongly with the theological quest of understanding God: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the role of chance and randomness? Did our emergence happen randomly, or were we a guaranteed outcome at the time of the big bang?
If questions of existence, randomness and contingency are both scientific and theological questions, they are also questions for the individual Christian to wrestle with: how does God answer prayer? How does God interact with the natural order? Where is God in the apparent randomness and chance of human life?
A second example of science dialoguing with theological thinking is in Quantum Mechanics. Quantum theory demonstrates that it is not possible to know precisely both where a sub-atomic particle is and how it is moving. At its fundamental level, matter itself appears not to be entirely predictable. Christians believe that God created all matter, and so it is a problem how God, who is omniscient and omnipotent, can have made the universe with such randomness and uncertainty apparently woven in. Theologically there have been several responses. Perhaps God is the one deciding these unpredictable interactions: God as the certainty in the uncertainty. But others have found this ‘god of micromanagement’ unpalatable and theology must continue to wrestle to understand a universe which science is revealing to be contingent, with an uncertain future and full of apparently random nature.
The crux for Christians, who believe in a loving God, is science which suggests randomness: for the randomness leads to uncertainty and possibly to suffering. This was brought into sharp focus in the debates surrounding Darwin’s publication of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Theology responded with ideas of God being in the process of evolution, and even suffering within the created order.
If this all seems grand and complicated. there are two things that we can all do in response to these debates. Firstly, we have a duty as Christians to engage with science. Science is the best of what we know about the universe, and if we believe that God made it, then our theology and faith must reflect the very best that we can know. Publications such as the New Scientist offers us a good way to begin.
Secondly, action might be needed in our lives. It might be that you do some theological reflection on an area of science which is of interest to you, whether it is genetics, fundamental physics or astrobiology. Nothing should separate us from our own universe. For it could be that God will be at work in us through such enterprises. Consider the work of environmental science. It has clearly shown that humans have perturbed the natural system in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the planet, and the final effects of this are unclear though they will probably affect the poorest people on the planet most acutely. The Trinitarian view of God highlights the importance of relationship and interdependency which can be extended to underpin a theology for ecological living. The science has direct ethical outcomes, and, for Christians, theological ones too.
Many working scientists who are Christian would deny that they leave their beliefs at the door when they go into their laboratory. Indeed, scientists frequently speak of the wonder and awe into which science leads them. And it is in this vein that we should all enter the debates between science and religion. Science studies God’s world and offers us not only an opportunity to learn more about God and ourselves, but inspire us to praise the creator of the universe and serve God in caring for his wondrous creation.