Christian theology and modern science

At least since the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species about a century and a half ago, many people, including many Christians, have felt that Christian theology and modern science must always be in conflict. The fact that many modern scientists are devout and knowledgeable Christians should undermine this perception, but in fact it has failed to do so.

Some thinkers have called for a truce in the conflict. They argue that theology and science operate in separate spheres. Roughly, science tells us the truth about the universe, and theology tells us its meaning. Science tells us how the universe works, and theology tells us why there is a universe.

They have a point. We do not look to theology for an understanding of gravity, and we do not look to science for an understanding of the Holy Trinity. Or, as Galileo said, we look to the Bible to learn how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

Other thinkers have called for a conversation between theology and science. In fact, such a conversation is underway in journals, books, and classrooms.

All this is helpful, but there is another angle from which to view the claim that  theology and science are unavoidably conflicted. It is the historical angle.

Modern science arose with the work of Galileo and Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Historians of ideas naturally ask, Why then and why there? Why was modern science born in Europe rather than in, for examples, India or China? In the seventeenth century the civilizations of China and India were literate, sophisticated, and vastly older than European civilization. What particular conditions in Europe made it suitable for the birth of modern science?

It seems probable that multiple factors contributed to the rise of modern science, including economic and technological ones. Another important factor was the religion of Europe, namely, Christianity.

Almost a century ago the polymath Alfred North Whitehead pointed out in Science and the Modern World that two factors in Christianity contributed to the rise of modern science. One was that a rational God has created an intelligible world which human beings can understand by using their reason. Another was that God is personal, and this means God makes choices.

Pre-modern science, which in Europe was the science of Aristotle, employed reason, but it was primarily deductive reason. The assumption was that things behave the way they do because it is their character to do so. Rocks fall to earth because it is the nature of rocks to fall. This is their fate. We understand the world by reasoning deductively about the character of things.

By insisting that the Creator is personal and makes choices, Christian theology moved scientists toward inductive thinking. To understand what kind of a world God decided to create, it is not enough to reason deductively. We must investigate, experiment, and observe, and then we must reason inductively.

A contemporary scientist-theologian, Ian T. Barbour, suggested in his book Religion and Science that Christian theology made two additional contributions to the rise of modern science. One was the conviction that the world is good and therefore worth studying. In some religions the world is considered evil and therefore to be escaped rather than studied. The other contribution is that the world, though good, is not divine, and therefore it is not a sacrilege to experiment on the world.

Since Christian theology contributed so much to the birth of modern science, conflict between them cannot be inevitable. That makes the current conflict all the more regrettable.

Fisher Humphreys

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Fisher Humphreys is Professor of Divinity, Emeritus, of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

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