Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 3
This series is taken from Ted Davis' paper "Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective" for the Test of Faith project. You can download the full paper in PDF format at their website, www.testoffaith.com, as well as find many other wonderful resources about science and faith. In part two, Davis addressed how the rise of modern science changed how the relationship between science and Christianity was viewed. In today's final part, Davis offers some concluding thoughts on how science and Christianity are viewed today.
Another central feature of the Scientific Revolution was the mechanical philosophy, according to which the world is an impersonal machine rather than an organism that acts semi-consciously for purposes of its own. This is nothing other than the modern scientific worldview. Mechanical philosophers challenged prevailing Aristotelian and Galenic notions, according to which ‘Nature’ is a wise and benevolent being that does nothing in vain, abhors a vacuum, and functions as the wisest physician. Boyle was the most influential advocate of the new view, and he assumed this role substantially for theological reasons. The mechanical philosophy was so attractive to him precisely because it gave clearer, more coherent explanations of nature, enabling genuine progress in practical knowledge in accord with the Genesis mandate. It also did away with the idea of a semi-divine ‘Nature’ as an intermediary between God and the world, thus underscoring divine sovereignty: nature is a created object, and its created properties and powers are the proper subject of our study. Finally, by focusing attention on the astonishing complexity and intricacy of the created order, the mechanical philosophy underscored the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Creator himself.
Throughout the Scientific Revolution, it was taken for granted that religion and science were closely intertwined; both were needed for a complete understanding of the world. Indeed, the modern scientific method is to a significant degree a product of theological reflection on God, nature, and the human mind. (It is quite ironic that New Atheists claim that theology has never done anything for science.) During the Middle Ages, a common topic of discussion by Christian scholars was the relationship between the divine will and the divine reason. They all agreed that God has both will and reason, but a lively debate ensued about which ought to receive more emphasis: are the activities of the divine will wholly determined by reason, or are they sometimes inscrutable? As surprising as it may seem, this abstract question from medieval theology had a profound influence on debates about scientific knowledge during the Scientific Revolution. What kind of knowledge is science – is it completely certain or is it provisional? What method is best for understanding the created order – reason alone (including mathematics) or some combination of reason and experience? Leading figures took part on both sides of the argument; while Galileo and René Descartes stressed the power of human reason made in the image of God, Boyle and Newton believed that our created minds were not capable of limiting the freely exercised power of God. Ultimately, the modern scientific method of rational empiricism (a combination of reason and observation) matches the fact that nature is a contingent order, created by a free and rational God. As creatures made in God’s image, we can understand many of the patterns that God placed in the world, but those patterns must be discovered by observation, not dictated by human reason. God is free to create in ways that cannot be predicted, so we should not be astonished that nature sometimes does astonishing things.
Many Christian scientists today continue to place science in a larger theological context, while still keeping both ways of understanding reality in focus. In my view no one has done this more effectively than John Polkinghorne, a former mathematical physicist at Cambridge who is now an Anglican theologian. Polkinghorne sees science and Christianity as ‘cousinly’ enterprises that are both trying to establish ‘motivated belief’. His recent book Theology in the Context of Science stresses the crucial point that larger questions of meaning and purpose go well beyond science – in other words, science cannot make sense of itself: why is science possible at all? The universe ‘is not only rationally transparent’, he argues, but also ‘rationally beautiful, rewarding scientists with the experience of wonder at the marvelous order which is revealed through the labours of their research’. The laws of nature ‘have a character that seems to point the enquirer beyond what science itself is capable of telling, making a materialist acceptance of them as unexplained brute facts an intellectually unsatisfying stance to take’ (pp. 90-91). The fact that science is possible at all ‘is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore’ (p. 37). In short, ‘the activity of science is recognised to be an aspect of the imago dei’ (p. 13). This is a robust theism, and Polkinghorne gives it an explicitly Christian content. Recognizing that the Resurrection is ‘the pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn’ (p. 135), he searches for motivated belief in such an event, sifting carefully through the evidence to conclude (with N.T. Wright) that a genuine miracle is the best explanation for the stories of the empty tomb and the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus.
Here is the crucial link between someone like Polkinghorne and the founders of modern science: like his predecessors, Polkinghorne understands that nature is a ‘contingent order’ – and that both words in that phrase are important. Our knowledge of nature and its laws is possible because of our status as creatures bearing the divine image, but it is also limited by our status as creatures – and by the freedom of God to act in both wonderful and mysterious ways. As Boyle put it in a posthumously published Appendix to The Christian Virtuoso (1744), ‘it is extremely difficult for us dim-sighted mortals, to discern the utmost extent of the divine power and knowledge’. The Christian encounter with science comes down to this: confidence in the reliability of the book of nature as an authentic divine revelation, tempered by genuine humility and augmented by reverence for the One who wrote the book.
Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.