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Off with Their Heads

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December 17, 2012 Tags: Pastoral Voices
Off with Their Heads
Manuscript of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, courtesy of the British Library

Today's entry was written by Kerry L. Bender. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

Kerry L. Bender is the pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has been interested in the conversation between science and faith for some time, but his interest has intensified in the last few years with his own children entering middle-school and high school. Their questions were a catalyst for Pastor Kerry’s renewed interest in this topic, and he is currently working on a book project to provide solid exegetical and scientific information for young people within the church. Rev. Bender received his bachelor's degree in religion and history from Jamestown College, his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and his Master of Theology from the University of Edinburgh.

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Seenoevo - #75377

December 17th 2012

“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.”

Excluding the Galileo controversy, which has probably been addressed here many times before, what are some of the many instances of the Queen hampering her subjects’ pursuit of truth through the ages?

Eddie - #75379

December 17th 2012

The column above starts out with a discussion of the role of theology in the Middle Ages.  Then, without any indication that the time period under discussion has changed, it says:  

“biology should discover the mechanism of creation; psychology should discover the role of parent bonding in childhood development”

Better back up a minute.  In the Middle Ages it certainly was not believed that “biology should discover the mechanism of creation.”  Nor was that the view in the early era of science—Newton and Boyle certainly did not believe that.  (In fact, they didn’t even believe that physics could discover the mechanism of creation of the non-organic world.  That happened later, with people like Kant and Laplace.)  Indeed, it wasn’t until the lead-up to Darwin that it was thought that the modern science of life could explain how species were created.  

And “parent bonding”?  This is mid-20th century American academic psychology lingo, not the language of the Middle Ages.  The Middle Ages spoke not of “bonding” (which sounds like either glue, or electrons, not human beings—and how typical of modern psychology to picture human relationships in mechanistic terms!), but of love or of justice or of friendship.

I would also echo the question in the first comment above, i.e., how many examples are there of theology actually hampering the pursuit of truth?  Even the Galileo case is not a clear example, once one studies the details.  And of course Darwin had some influential Church of England clergymen on his side.  Very rare are the cases where the scientific community has said X and the Church has said, “No, you cannot believe or teach X.”

There were certainly some cases in the Middle Ages where Aristotelian philosophy appeared to teach X and the Church opposed it.  The condemnations of Tempier in 1277 are an example.  But modern science arose in opposition to much of Aristotelian philosophy.  There are not many examples of specific modern scientific claims where the Church—Protestant or Catholic—has exercised a veto.  And the one case where the Church, or churches, have weighed in rather heavily, concerning origins, is understandable, given that a good number of the leading scientific voices in the 20th century were openly atheistic and secular, and often treated scientific speculation about origins as a substitute religion, a secular creation story meant to replace the Christian one.

The “warfare of science with theology” has been greatly exaggerated.  But it has been the main journalistic framing of discussions of science and theology for the past 150 years.  We have to junk that framing story if we are going to have a more subtle and realistic understanding of the interaction of science and theology. 


Jon Garvey - #75381

December 18th 2012

There’s another aspect too, Eddie. The generous and democratic decision of the Queen to let the Jack of science (or whatever metaphor we’re using) carry on independently is, in fact, a decision to let another Queen (the Jezebel of naturalistic materialism??) rule despotically over science.

I would have thought that any decent account of philosophy of science would recognise that science is inevitably controlled by metaphysics. The question is whether it is preferable for that metaphysics to entail materialism or theism, perhaps specifically in the form of Christian theology.

The secondary question is why Christian writers should be opting for the former (apparently oblivious to its dominant role nowadays) and why they should show such naivety about the “science-religion conflict” after all that has been written about it, even on BioLogos.

It leaves a very real danger that Jezebel will usurp the role of the rightful Queen in theology too, telling us, perhaps, that Jesus Christ our Lord isn’t, as the Old Queen always taught us, perfect God and perfect man indivisible, but prone to error like all the men science has studied.

Brian Lang - #75395

December 18th 2012

Some thoughts:

1) Very nicely written—appealing metaphors, a laudable “moral of the story”, etc.    

2) I too shrink from the Science vs. Religion framing of the issue.  (Or even the materialism vs. supernaturalism framing… since it appears that Christians can be materialists/physicalists with regard to the universe and yet maintain belief in God, miracles, etc.)  That said, American Evangelicalism appears to be the target of the “off with their heads” critique—which is a fair criticism of it.  [But the switch from Medieval Europe to Modern American Evangelicalism is not obvious and at best implicit.]

3) I’m very uncomfortable with Gould’s non-overlapping magesteria talk.  If religion and history do not overlap then what is to be done with religious historical claims?  If religion and science do not overlap then is it impossible for the supernatural to interact with the natural (e.g. is Theism abandoned for Deism?)  Excluding religion from the physical facts of the universe seems to have extreme consequences and may not be necessary.   


Kerry Bender - #75425

December 18th 2012

Brian, thanks for your comments, critique, and questions.  The post was never meant to be an exhaustive history of the relationship between the Church and science, but I did make a huge jump between the second and third paragraph without explanation.

The first two paragraphs were simply background to the issue; history, if you will.  The next three paragraphs were a statement of how I believe the Church or theology has best served the other sciences and its appropriate roll in relationship to the other sciences.  In my assessment, it has done this well from time to time and, unfortunately, from time to time it has done poorly.  The remainder of the post was to encourage us as the Church to once again establish theology as the queen through respectful discourse rather than degrading the work of other subjects.  I apologize for the “shifting without the clutch” between the second and third paragraph in hindsight this could and should have been clearer.

Finally, in regards to the Gould quote, I share your reservations concerning his language of non-overlapping magesteria in light of his later explanation of this.  I do believe, however, that there is a beauty in the language of these interdigitating that needs to be salvaged from his original quote.  I guess it is my hope that the baby can be saved from the bath water.  The bath water is the argument that these are unrelated and therefore impossible to interact.  The baby, in my opinion, is that these interdigitate in “beautifully complex ways” while maintaining primary areas of authority.  In other words, theological conversation and scientific conversation is richer when it engages in conversation with one another, and yet is is a mistake to think that their primary subject is the same.

I hope this helps a bit.  Thanks again for your comment.

Warm regards,

Seenoevo - #75430

December 18th 2012

“…how I believe the Church or theology has best served the other sciences and its appropriate roll in relationship to the other sciences. In my assessment, it has done this well from time to time and, unfortunately, from time to time it has done poorly.”

Again, any examples?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #75440

December 18th 2012


Is theism the only alternative to materialism? 

Yes, materialism rules out God/Spirit, but it also rules out the mind.

Reality is not matter or Spirit.  It is not monistic, one or the other.  It is not dualistic, matter vs the Spirit. 

Reality is matter, mind, and spirit.   

Roger A. Sawtelle - #75521

December 19th 2012

It is my observation that the three pillars of Western culture. Philosophy, Theology and Science, are in bad shape.

Philosophy especially has lost its way.  There has been little or no new philosophical thinking, and old philosophy is now passe. 

Theology has become dependent on philosophy for its form, if not its meaning, so it has lost its voice.

Science (in the form of Scientism) without philosophy as a guide has completely lost its way.

Fortunately there is an answer and Theology has access to it in the Bible.  But Theology needs to stop acting like the Queen (Boss) and to begin to act like a Servant in order to take on the hard work of renewal and admit that we all have responsibility for this serious crisis.  


wesseldawn - #75768

January 1st 2013

Theology still reigns as Queen, in Christian circles. The Queen is very careful to keep the rest of the world outside and her subjects within; until they no longer can function outside the castle doors.

Being strictly philosophical (based on personal and traditional views) she cannot court non-religious science as true science deals only with absolutes. 

The Queen is sincere, believing she has the sacred task of upholding God’s honor but any assistance she could render would be a futile attempt at best as she cannot possibly attain the perfect standard required to represent the all-powerful God! Indeed would such a God even require assistance! It then makes one wonder if she reigns for God’s sake, or her own!









Jellymee Cily - #76899

February 26th 2013

The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small.
“Off with his head!” she said, without even looking round.


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Madeeha Hina - #80150

May 15th 2013

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