Three Views on Christianity and Science
“Views books” offer brief sketches of competing views on a target subject along with some arguments for and against each view. For Three Views on Christianity and Science, the target area is relating Christianity to the sciences. The three views or models on display are supposed to be independence or two-realms, dialogue, and integration. Generally, two-realms models treat the sciences and Christianity as independent and disconnected domains of inquiry having no implications for each other. Dialogue models treat the sciences and theology as distinct ways of knowing that can interact fruitfully. Integration models posit some form of, well, integration between the sciences and Christian thought.
All three families of models represent versions of Christianity and the sciences as conversation partners. Independence is a form of two partners agreeing not to speak to or trouble each other. Dialogue is a form of constructive discussion with mutual give and take. Integration is a form conversation where a basis is set dictating the terms of the conversation and contributions.
Michael Ruse’s contribution represents independence. It is lively but the sarcasm might turn many readers off from thinking through the strengths and weaknesses of two-realms models. Ruse does not really describe and defend independence models though he does embody a key problem for such models—he cannot genuinely keep the sciences and theology separate from each other.1 His chapter displays his own idiosyncratic approach to biblical interpretation in light of natural science inquiry. It is a form of conversation between two partners where one keeps telling the other “You don’t really mean that!” or “Have you thought about it this way?” Ruse’s independence amounts to the idea that if he were a Christian, no developments in the sciences would affect his faith aside from awe and wonder (46).
As one can readily see, Ruse has been in dialogue with Christianity for decades not successfully keeping his understanding of the sciences from shaping his understanding of Scripture and Christianity (he gives copious references to this ongoing conversation in his contribution and replies). It is quite remarkable and worth pondering just how much he knows about the Bible and Christian theology, yet he remains an agnostic. Knowledge and argument alone are not enough to gain entry to God’s kingdom.
Alister McGrath explicitly articulates a dialogue model of critical and constructive engagement that does not shy away from difficult or challenging questions. When mutual understanding is the aim, dialogue partners need to respect each other and be open to learning from and being challenged by each other. Being vulnerable about each other’s limitations presents a good opportunity for constructive dialogue and enriched understanding.
McGrath frames his dialogue approach using the venerable two-books metaphor: God is the author of the book of Scripture as well as the book of nature. God being ultimate author of both provides a theological motivation for seeking dialogue resulting in growing mutual understanding between Christianity and the natural sciences. McGrath further cashes this out in terms of metaphors such as theology and the natural sciences inhabiting different perspectives, addressing different levels of explanation, or working with different maps of reality. Though McGrath is eloquent about how these metaphors open conceptual space for conversation, readers might desire a concrete example of how a fruitful conversation in that space might proceed.
For example, honest substantial dialogue between theology and the sciences might have been made more concrete by briefly homing in on two points. First, picking up on what was key about the two books metaphor to natural philosophers: creation revelation; that is, knowledge about the creation God reveals through nature.2 This affords thinking more theologically about Christian interpretation of natural science inquiry as well as possibilities for engagement with scientific inquiry. McGrath focuses on what usually attracts theologians: natural theology and what we can learn about God through nature. Second, bringing in the idea of the Triune Creator acting through creation’s functional integrity so that the very properties and processes of creation minister to creation.3 This affords a vantage point from which scientists can see richer meaning and value to their work.
In his reply to Bruce Gordon, it is unfortunate that McGrath claims Darwin “was obliged to criticize Paley’s religious account of the origin of species” (182) as this is historically inaccurate. Darwin was criticizing the dominant view of creationism at the time, the centers of creation model—God specially created in different locations on the Earth and at different times—chiefly as advocated by Louis Agassiz.4 Darwin actually shared much with Paley regarding elements of the doctrine of creation in The Origin of Species.5 In essence, Darwin argues that the centers of creation model at best simply restates the observations proclaiming these are the will of the Creator. In contrast, Darwin’s theory offered an explanation for the observations (that is, how God might have created, as Ruse helpfully points out in his response to Gordon).
Gordon’s contribution represents some form of integration model, but he never explains what this is; rather, he launches into a polemic defending Intelligent Design. The only real clue to the form of integration Gordon seeks is “a robust metaphysical integration of science and philosophical theology” (126, emphasis in the original). Even when McGrath requests that Gordon explain what he means by “integration,” the request is ignored.
Left unaddressed is the problem of integration: On what basis is the integration to be achieved? Regarding Christianity and the sciences this means either a particular theological view or biblical interpretation and constraining the sciences to fit in on that basis; or adopting a particular scientific framework and constraining biblical interpretation or Christian thought to be merged with respect to the parameters of the scientific framework. This is a conversation where one partner sets the terms for how the other can speak and contribute. Human relationships conducted this way typically are not healthy since they reflect a form of power dominance.
Gordon’s chapter looks like an exercise in dominance as to what the sciences can and cannot say, how they should be interpreted, and so on. As such, it is filled with tendentious readings of cherry-picked history (143-149) (Ruse rightly calls Gordon out on this), confusion of methodological naturalism with metaphysical naturalism (leading to said cherry-picked history), failure to realize the difference between the principle of sufficient reason (if there is a sufficient reason for P, then P) and the axiom of sufficient reason6 (if P, then there is a sufficient reason for P), hence misunderstanding much about scientific and metaphysical explanation (135), repeating failed probability arguments against evolution that misconstrue how genetics actually works (156-159), and a failure to recognize that insisting on the scientific detectability of intelligent causes (God) reduces the Creator-Redeemer to a natural object on par with created being (118), among other problems. It is what you would expect from a bully insisting on his way or the highway. This apparently is what constrained integration amounts to for Gordon.
In Colossians, Paul proclaims that all things are reconciled in Christ; they find their unity and coherence in the Son (1:20). Those of us interested in the relationship between the sciences and theology are seeking to discover this reconciliation or coherence achieved in Christ. It is already there; the task is finding it.
Relations between the sciences and theology are more like human relationships—dynamic! There is no fixed-in-time, once-for-all agreement in a friendship, marriage, or business partnership. Instead, as each person grows and changes over time, the relationship is constantly renegotiated, previous agreements reinterpreted and amended, conversation is ongoing, there are quarrels and reconciliations, mutual help and enjoyment, and so forth. As with all human activities, such conversational relationship can be carried out well or poorly. The sciences and Christianity are no different, and the three contributors to this volume illustrate some of the better and poorer moments in the ongoing relationship between these two domains of life.
What other way forward is there but dialogue, ongoing conversation about what matters to each of us and why, learning from each other, coming to understanding about each other and the world we live in? Good, honest dialogue is hard, painstaking, takes time and energy, and has its frustrating and enjoyable moments. But the rewards of coming into that ultimate reconciliation of the sciences and theology in the Son are worth it even though we see through a glass darkly on this side of New Creation.
Cite this article
- Henry Stob, Theological Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 39-42.
- Robert C. Bishop, Larry L. Funk, Raymond J. Lewis, Stephen O. Moshier, and John H. Walton, Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology and Biology in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, December 2018), chap. 4.
- Bishop et al., Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins, chap. 2.
- Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2009).
- James R. Moore, The Post Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), chap. 12.
- Robert Kane, “Principles of Reason,” Erkinntnis 24 (1986): 115-136.