Christianity, Anglican, Issues in Science and Religion

views updated

Christianity, Anglican, Issues in Science and Religion

The initial impulse given to Anglican thought in the sixteenth century was a confident belief in God as creator of the world, which, though fallen, was intelligible to human understanding. From biblical, patristic, and medieval sources, Anglican liturgy gave expression to the praise of God, notably in the daily use of the book of Psalms, and of canticles such as the Benedicite and Te Deum. Although initially the reformed Church of England understood itself as a form of Protestantism, the vision of balancing God's work in creation and in human history was somewhat distinctive, giving its thought a somewhat less anthropocentric character.

Views of nature

This positive perspective on nature comes to expression in the classic theology of Richard Hooker (15541600). Within a generally hierarchical and Aristotelian view of nature, Hooker insists on God's work as artist, guide, and providential director within nature. Its constancy and dependability are the source of human knowledge of its laws. Natural objects are moved by God as instruments of his being. The same theme is also evident in the poetry of George Herbert (15931633), who assigns to humanity the role of being secretary to the praise offered by the whole of creation. A very powerful and individual voice is that of the Anglican poet Thomas Traherne (16361674), who takes a mystical delight in the beauty of the created order.

Interaction with the sciences

Certain specific conditions made England a particularly hospitable place for the burgeoning of natural theology after the condemnation of Galileo Galilei (15641642) in 1616 and 1633. The founding of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (known as the Royal Society) in 1660 benefited both from the comparatively loose structure of authority in the Church of England and from a certain degree of toleration of diversity of opinion. In fact, Thomas Sprat (16351713), the first writer of the history of the Royal Society, wrote, "The Church of England therefore may justly be styl'd the Mother of this sort of Knowledge; and so the care of its nourishment and prosperity peculiarly lyes upon it" (quoted in Peacocke, p. 5).

Isaac Newton (16431727) was an Anglican reared in the scholasticism of Cambridge, but open to the new influences from mechanical philosophy. In his Opticks (1706) Newton assigned to God the duties of preventing the stars from collapsing together and of reforming the mechanism of the world to prevent it from subversion by irregularities. The rationalism of this scheme was complemented by his approach to Scripture, which he denied taught the doctrine of the Trinity. But it is clear that Newton was by intention a pious believer and theological thinker as well as a brilliant scientist.

The same atmosphere of toleration supported the scientific work of non-Anglican Protestants, notable among whom was the naturalist and theologian, John Ray (16271705). A fellow of the Royal Society, Ray's exceptional work of taxonomy was carried outside the Anglican universities, and his late work, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691), advanced the argument from design influential throughout the coming century.

Although mechanistic philosophy was strongly attacked by many Anglican theological writers (and poets) of the eighteenth century, the teleological argument for the existence of God remained popular, receiving influential expression in the work of the philosopher William Paley (17431805), an Anglican priest, and author of a standard textbook, Natural History (1802). This book was studied by Charles Darwin (18091882) as a student, and its arguments are still worthy of consideration.

An attempt to find a version of the mechanical philosophy compatible with theism was a feature of the Cambridge scientist, ethicist, and theologian, William Whewell (17941866). An ordained Anglican as well as a founding member and early president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Whewell stressed the inductive and historical character of science. At the same time he held that God's creation of the world guaranteed the simplicity and comprehensibility of the laws governing nature.

Darwin's own discoveries and writings provided, and still provide, an enormous stimulus to Anglican, as well as to all English-language theology. The dominant idealism of late nineteenth-century English universities had little difficulty in adapting to the implications of Darwinian thought, and Darwin himself was buried, without controversy, in Westminster Abbey.

The dialogue since Darwin

After Darwin and the opening of Oxford and Cambridge to non-Anglicans, it became more difficult to identify a specifically Anglican strand in the generally vibrant relations of science and theology. After the second world war, however, a further burgeoning took place in Anglican responses to scientific developments. In 1942 an Anglican theologian, Charles E. Raven (18851964), produced a major biographical study of John Ray, following it later with a two-volume history of religion and science (Natural Religion and Christian Theology, 1953).

From the 1970s two authors, both Anglican priests, biologist Arthur Peacocke (1924) and physicist John Polkinghorne (1930) have made major contributions. For Peacocke the theological interpretation of how God is related to the world must be rethought in the direction of panentheism, God suffering in and with the world processes. For Polkinghorne, God is active within the world, though in a self-limited, kenotic way.

Attempts to popularize the discoveries of science have led to a continuing public interest and debate, especially on the ethical problems of gene technology. Notable contributions have been made by an Anglican bishop and geneticist, John Habgood (1927), Archbishop of York from 1983 to 1995.

See also Darwin, Charles; Natural Theology; Newton, Isaac; Panentheism


habgood, john. religion and science. london: hodder and stoughton, 1972.

newton, isaac. opticks: or, a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections and colours of light (1706). 4th edition. london: bell and sons, 1931.

paley, william. natural history: or, evidences of the existence and attributes of the deity, collected from the appearances of nature (1802). cambridge, uk: chadwyck-healey, 1998.

peacocke, arthur r. creation and the world of science: the brampton lectures, 1978. oxford: clarendon press, 1979.

polkinghorne, john c. belief in god in an age of science. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1998.

polkinghorne, john c. science and theology: an introduction. london: spck/fortress, 1998.

raven, charles e. natural religion and christian theology: the gifford lectures, 1951. first series: science and religion. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1953.

ray, john. the wisdom of god manifest in the works of creation. (1691). london and new york: olms, 1974.

whewell, william. the philosophy of the inductive sciences, founded upon their history, new edition, 2 vols. london: j. w. parker, 1847.

stephen sykes

About this article

Christianity, Anglican, Issues in Science and Religion

Updated About content Print Article


Christianity, Anglican, Issues in Science and Religion