Off with Their Heads
The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small.
“Off with his head!” she said, without even looking round.
Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Caroll
Theology once held a seat of high regard among the sciences. During the Middle Ages theology was the Queen of the Sciences, and it sat enthroned at the core of academic studies throughout Europe. Many of the great European universities developed from the cathedral schools where theology was the nucleus around which all other study revolved and found its meaning.
The reason for this position of favor was that theology was discussion about – or the study of – God himself. In God, believers found their purpose and very existence. Therefore, God was not a position to be reasoned to; rather, reason flowed from one’s understanding of who God is and his relationship to humanity.
As Queen, theology’s function was not to discover all the answers herself but rather to encourage the other subjects – her subjects – to pursue truth. Math should discover that 2+2=4; biology should discover the mechanism of creation; psychology should discover the role of parent bonding in childhood development; but it was the role of the Queen to give meaning to the truths of her subjects.
In other words, 2+2=4 neither proves nor disproves the Creator, but theology – a profound belief in the Creator – sees the beauty in the ordered world around us. Theology and math are not the same. They answer different questions. But they are not completely separate answers; together they form a more complete answer to each of their individual questions. To quote Stephen Jay Gould, they are “nonoverlapping magesteria” to be certain, but they are also “interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer” (Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997).
It is unfortunate that Gould’s later explanation of these nonoverlapping magesteria left so little room for theology; in a sense, banishing the Queen almost completely to the hinterlands of the academic kingdom. The image of these nonoverlapping magesteria “interdigitating in wondrously complex ways,” however, is still worth considering. This image serves as a reminder that one should not reason from God or theological perspectives to mathematical principles or scientific theories anymore than one should reason from mathematical principles or scientific theories to the existence of God or the non-existence of God. In their “interdigitating,” however, in the beautiful harmonies between theology and the other sciences a fuller answer is given – an answer that provides not only facts but also meaning.
Unfortunately, the history of theology’s reign through the ages is questionable at best. The Queen far too often hampered instead of encouraged the pursuit of truth by her subjects. Today, many put the Queen at direct odds with her subjects, and this has led to a comical and tragic caricature of theology in our current society – a Queen who settles all difficulties, great or small, with the same solution, without bothering to look around, and by yelling, “Off with their heads.”
As Christians, who care deeply for the pursuit of truth, we cannot – and must not – attempt to restore theology to a place of prestige by destroying the work of her subjects or by belittling the work of those who practice them. We must not attempt to settle every difficulty between theology and the other sciences by calling for the heads of others to roll while we bury our own heads in the sand.
Rather, as theologians, whether professional or lay, we must assist theology to ascend to her throne as Queen of the Sciences by encouraging the pursuit of truth in all fields wherever they lead, by humbly entering into discussion with her subjects concerning the truth they discover, and by proclaiming the Truth that gives meaning to all truth – Jesus Christ, our Lord.