Christian Perspectives: Contemporary Assessments of Science

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The relationship between science and Christianity is often portrayed as one of perpetual conflict. Although controversies such as that between the science of evolution and claims for religious creationism or intelligent design theory lend credence to this popular perception, the actual relationship is more complex. Indeed, since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, theologians have spent considerable effort just trying to sort out alternatives. Two great contributors to this effort were the German historian of Christianity Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) and the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962). Niebuhr, for instance, distinguishes five basic relationships between Christ and culture: Christ as opposed to culture, as in agreement with culture, as above culture, as paradoxically related to culture, and as transformer of culture. Insofar as science is a kind of culture, these same five types can be found manifest in the Christianity–science relationship. Indeed, in a contemporary adaptation of Niebuhr, Ian
G. Barbour (1990) develops a typology of four possible relationships that can serve here as a convenient framework.


Barbour contends that this option represents a relatively small group of highly vocal protagonists whom he labels scientific materialists and biblical literalists. Within this schema, materialists use science to discredit religious faith, whereas literalists use religion to dictate the purview and course of scientific investigation.

Scientific materialists assert that science offers the only reliable route to knowledge, and that matter and energy are the fundamental realities of the universe. Drawing heavily on logical positivism, they argue that only verifiable or falsifiable statements have cognitive value. Consequently, religious beliefs are dismissed as meaningless, emotive statements because theological claims can be neither verified nor falsified. Examples of influential scientific materialists include Jacques Monod (1972), Edward O. Wilson (1978), and Richard Dawkins (1986).

Biblical literalists insist that scripture reveals the fundamental truth of the universe as God's creation. Although the Bible does not offer a detailed description of how God brought the universe into existence, it does disclose an underlying intelligent design as unbiased observations of nature confirm. Any so-called scientific evidence to the contrary should be attacked as false, incomplete, or mistaken. Moreover, because God is a supernatural being, divine or miraculous acts are not subject to the principles of verifiability or falsifiability in order to determine their truth. Consequently, given the supernatural origins of the universe, revelation provides the most trustworthy knowledge about ultimate realities.

The difference between materialists and literalists is most pronounced in their conflicting claims on human nature. Materialists argue that human behavior can be best explained as the emergent outcome of a blind evolutionary process. Human values and social mores are thereby the result of adaptive behavioral strategies that gave Homo sapiens and predecessors a survival advantage over time. Any moral difference separating humans from other animals is one of degree, not kind. Literalists retort that human beings were specially created by God. Unlike animals, humans possess souls that enable them to have fellowship with God, and the ability to perceive and obey God's moral commands as disclosed in Scripture. Thus human life has a uniquely sacred quality that is fixed rather than malleable. These contending claims over human nature are in turn often reflected in the acrimonious "culture wars" fought over such contentious issues as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia.


One strategy for avoiding conflict between science and religion is to insist on a rigorous separation and mutual honoring of their respective disciplinary boundaries. Science and religion are discrete and autonomous domains of inquiry that do not overlap. Given this détente, science confines itself to questions of what, while religion focuses on issues of why. Science offers empirical descriptions of physical reality while religion interprets the meaning of human existence by employing theological and moral precepts.

Christian theologians use a variety of methodologies in maintaining their independent sphere of inquiry. Karl Barth and his followers, for example, insist that history rather than nature is the domain of God's activities. It is through God's covenant with Israel, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that God reveals the divine plan for creation. In this respect, the Bible is held in high regard but is not interpreted literally. Consequently, naturalistic explanations of the origin of the universe do not contradict the biblical creation stories because both accounts are offered in delineated and noncompetitive modes of discourse. Moreover, an evolutionary description of human origins is unproblematic because God is revealed in the historical category of human culture rather than the natural category of biology. Similar approaches have been developed by Langdon Gilkey (1965) and Thomas F. Torrance (1969).

Science and theology do not conflict because of their highly disparate objects of inquiry and respective methodologies. They represent differing languages or linguistic constructs that cannot be easily translated into each other's categories. Although mutual independence promotes a peaceful relationship between science and religion, the price is that both appear to be describing two unrelated worlds rather than a common or single reality.


One way of overcoming this artificial division is to promote a dialogue between science and religion. There are two levels at which this dialogue may be pursued. First, both scientists and theologians encounter questions or make discoveries that cannot be easily confined within their respective disciplinary boundaries. Scientific research, for instance, may disclose a natural beauty and elegance inspiring a response of awe and wonder, while theologians are driven to find rational connections between human history and its underlying natural foundations. These transdisciplinary insights raise the prospect that although science and religion invoke two incompatible languages, they are nonetheless making correlative claims. Ernan McMullin (1998), for example, contends that although the big bang theory does not prove the Christian doctrine of creation, there is an implicit consonance suggesting that the universe is dependent upon God. More explicitly, Karl Rahner (1978) contends that Christian anthropology is compatible with evolutionary theory because it is through the emergence of spirit within matter that God has brought into being a creature with the capabilities of self-transcendence and divine fellowship.

The second level of dialogue focuses on the methodological parallels between science and religion. Wolfhart Pannenberg (1976), for instance, contends that theological doctrines are equivalent to scientific hypotheses that can be tested against universal rational criteria. The principal difference between science and theology is that the latter is concerned about reality as a whole, and given its unfinished and unpredictable character is not subject to as rigorous disciplinary scrutiny. In a similar vein, Alister E. McGrath (2003) argues that theological doctrines should be thought of as theories about nature and reality, whose truthfulness should be tested by rigorous theological and philosophical criteria. Other writers, such as Janice Martin Soskice (1985), Barbour (1990), and Mary Gerhart and Allan Russell (1984) insist that the dichotomy between "objective" science and "subjective" religion is false and misleading. Scientific research is itself theory-laden rather than neutral, and scientists often resort to intuition and analogies in constructing their theories. Similarly, theologians use theory-laden models and metaphors to investigate and describe religious experience. The work of both scientists and theologians may therefore be assessed in terms of coherence, comprehensiveness, and fruitfulness, thereby acquiring a common form of knowledge that Michael Polyani asserts is personal but not merely subjective. Consequently, the models and metaphors employed respectively by science and theology may prove mutually enriching in investigating the origin and nature of the universe in general and those of human beings in particular.


Although the dialogue approach promotes a closer relationship between science and religion than that offered by the independence model, the resulting conversation tends to be cursory given the focus on methodological issues. A number of writers assert that in order to correct the incomplete character of this dialogue, the content of science and religion needs to be integrated. Following Barbour, there are three prominent ways for pursuing such integration, which he identifies as natural theology, theology of nature, and systematic synthesis.

Natural theology is based on the premise that the order and intelligibility of the universe suggests an underlying purpose or design. This is especially the case with respect to the emergence of life, which proponents claim implies a natural teleology; that is, the evolution of the universe is itself oriented toward an emergent intelligence. Religious experience and revelation confirm this basic scientific insight. Consequently, natural theological arguments often begin with science in order to construct subsequent religious claims. Richard Swinburne (2004), for instance, contends that given all the available scientific evidence, it is more probable than not that a deity or creator exists. A variety of authors have also invoked the anthropic principle, claiming that the universe appears to be "fine-tuned" for the emergence of life. Freeman Dyson (1979) claims that although the anthropic principle does not prove God's existence, the universe's architecture is consistent with a structure in which something like a mind plays a dominant role. More expansively, Simon Conway Morris (2003) contends that evolution is not a random process, and that the emergence of human life was inevitable given the rare physical conditions of planet Earth.

A theology of nature approach starts with traditional religious claims and reformulates them in light of contemporary science. Arthur Peacocke (1993), for example, explicates a pantheistic understanding of God to account for the necessity of randomness and chance in God's created order. It is through natural processes as disclosed by science that God participates in the ongoing creation of the universe. In this respect, Peacocke asserts that God is in the world but the world in also in God, and he uses the analogy of the universe as God's body and God as the universe's mind or soul to illustrate his argument. John Polkinghorne (1994) and Ted Peters (2000) have also undertaken similar reformulations, though with differing doctrinal emphases. More radically, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1964) offers a reinterpretation of Christian eschatology in which the evolution of self-conscious and intelligent life is being drawn toward an "Omega Point" of a single, universal consciousness.

Other writers advocate a systematic synthesis of science and religion resulting in an all-embracing metaphysics. The process philosophers Alfred North Whitehead (1978/1929) and Charles Hartshorne (1967) are leading examples of this approach. Both reject traditional doctrines of divine omnipotence in favor of a persuasive God, thereby accounting for the necessity of freedom, chance, and suffering in the world. Creation is an incomplete process, and God encourages its self-creation and completion, thereby allowing humans to exhibit genuine freedom and novelty within malleable natural structures. More modestly, James Gustafson (1981) and Charles Birch and John B. Cobb Jr. (1981) use scientific and religious principles to develop a nonanthropocentric ethic in which nature and nonhuman life-forms are valued in respect to God rather than for their usefulness to humans. In formulating their respective ethics, they draw heavily on the biological and environmental sciences. Philip Hefner (1993) has also used a variety of sciences in pursuing a thorough and systematic recasting of theological anthropology. Humans are the products of genetic and cultural information to such a degree that technological civilization has become their natural habitat. Humans have therefore emerged as created cocreators, who in partnership with God are responsible for the eventual fate of creation.


There is thus no such thing as the Christian assessment of contemporary science. Rather, there is a wide range of assessments reflecting denominational and doctrinal differences, as well as the diversities of contemporary culture. Moreover, the typologies employed should not be construed as rigid categories but as markers within a highly fluid range of options. This is in keeping with the fact that the various relationships between science and religion are themselves subject to frequent reevaluation and revision in response to rapid developments in scientific, theological, and philosophical inquires.

It might also be noted that Barbour's typology has been criticized for a failure to take revelation seriously enough or as containing a built-in bias toward integration. Certainly there is a sense in which, from Barbour's perspective, integration appears to be the highest type of relationship between science and Christian theology.


SEE ALSO Anglo-Catholic Cultural Criticism;Evolution-Creationism Debate;Natural Law.


Barbour, Ian G. (1990). Religion in an Age of Science. San Francisco: Harper and Row. An extensive summary and overview of various relationships between modern science and religion.

Birch, Charles, and John B. Cobb Jr. (1981). The Liberation of Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A theistic interpretation of human evolution from the perspectives of a leading ecologist and process theologian.

Dawkins, Richard. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton. A materialist and contemporary Darwinian account of nature.

Dyson, Freeman. (1979). Disturbing the Universe. New York: Harper and Row. A philosophical reflection by a leading scientist on the meaning of recent and anticipated scientific and technological advances.

Gerhart, Mary, and Russell, Allan. (1984). Metaphoric Process: The Creation of Scientific and Religious Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press. An inquiry into the similarities and differences between religious and scientific ways of knowing.

Gilkey, Langdon. (1965 [1959]). Maker of Heaven and Earth: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of Creation. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. A contemporary Protestant theological treatise on the Christian doctrine of creation in light of modern science.

Gustafson, James M. (1981). Ethics From A Theocentric Perspective, Vol. 1: Theology and Ethics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. A leading Protestant theologian argues that ethics should be theopocentric (God-centered) rather than anthropocentric (human-centered).

Hartshone, Charles. (1967). A Natural Theology for Our Time. La Salle, IL: Open Court. A concise exposition on the primary themes of process philosophy and theology.

Hefner, Philip. (1993). The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Argues that advances in biological cultural evolution disclose humans as god's created co-creators.

McGrath, Alister E. (2001). A Scientific Theology, Vol. 1: Nature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Contends that from the perspective of Christian theology, nature should be regarded as creation.

McGrath, Alister E. (2002). A Scientific Theology, Vol. 2: Reality. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Argues that creation can only be properly understood from a critical realist vantage point.

McGrath, Alister E. (2003). A Scientific Theology, Vol. 3: Theory. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Contends that theological doctrines constructed from a critical realist perspective are similar to scientific theories that can be tested through the employment of various criteria.

Mcmullin, Ernan. (1998). "Cosmic Purpose and the Contingency of Human Evolution." Theology Today 55(3): 389–414. Examines the relevance of recent advances in cosmology for Christian theology.

Monod, Jacques. (1972). Chance and Necessity, trans. Austryn Wainhouse. New York: Vintage Books. A philosophical interpretation of biology from an evolutionary and materialist perspective.

Morris, Simon Conway. (2003). Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Argues that the evolution of life is not radically open-ended but is convergent, and thereby limited to a restricted range of outcomes.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. (1976). Theology and the Philosophy of Science, trans. Francis McDonagh. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. A highly detailed investigation into the relation between systematic theology and philosophy of science.

Peacocke, Arthur. (1993). Theology for a Scientific Age, rev. edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Crafts a concept of God that is intended to be compatible with contemporary scientific perspectives.

Peters, Ted. (2000). God—the World's Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. The author reconstructs a wide range of traditional Christian doctrines in response to new scientific theories and developments in postmodern philosophy.

Polkinghorne, John. (1994). The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker: The Gifford Lectures for 1993–4. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. An interpretation of Christian belief in light of new developments in physics, with an emphasis on natural theology, and the relationship between faith and reason.

Price, Daniel J. (2002). Karl Barth's Anthropology in Light of Modern Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. A critical and detailed assessment of Barth's theological anthropology.

Rahner, Karl. (1978). Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych. New York: Seabury Press. General reflections on the relationship between science and religion by one of the twentieth century's leading Catholic theologians.

Soskice, Janet Martin. (1985). Metaphor and Religious Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press. A comparative study of religious and scientific forms of discourse.

Swinburne, Richard. (2004). The Existence of God, 2nd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. A highly detailed philosophical argument for the existence of God.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. (1964). The Future of Man, trans. Norman Denny. London: Collins. A collection of highly speculative essays on the future course of human evolution.

Torrance, Thomas F. (1969). Theological Science. London: Oxford University Press. A philosophical and theological inquiry into the relationship between science and religion by a leading Protestant theologian.

Whitehead, Alfred North. (1978 [1929]). Process and Reality. New York: Free Press. A highly detailed account of the principal themes of process philosophy by its leading proponent.

Wilson, Edward O. (1978). On Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. An overview of the principal claims and methodologies of sociobiology.

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