Deep Resonances between Science and Theology, Part 3

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This is the third in a six part series adapted from a chapter in the upcoming book The Continuing Relevance of Wesleyan Theology: Essays in Honor of Laurence W. Wood, edited by Nathan Crawford (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011). In part two of this six part series, Peterson went on to discuss several big-picture themes within the Christian faith as established by the early Christian Fathers at the seven great councils. He concluded with the truth that God is kenotic, or self-emptying and self-giving, by nature. He limits his power and glory so as to truly provide humans with the freedom to love. Part three of this series continues this excavation for rich theological ideas.

Perichoretic. Beginning with the Cappadocian Fathers, Christian theology has used the term perichoresis to refer to the mutual inter-penetration and mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Trinity. Biblical passages such as “The Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father” ground this theme, which has been revitalized in our day by John Zizioulas, Jürgen Moltmann, and others.1 The Father and the Son do not simply embrace each other, but so intimate and harmonious is their communion that they also permeate each other, and dwell in each other eternally in one Being. All of this suggests that the inner life of God is dynamic, not static, and characterized by self-giving, self-sacrificing love. It is not difficult to imagine why St. Gregory of Nazianzus characterized God inner life as “the Great Dance.”2 Jesus himself extended the idea of mutual indwelling in an ecclesiastical direction in his prayer, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21 NRSV). So, the amazing invitation is for humanity to be drawn into the life of God—to become a partner in the great dance of mutual love relations. According to Jesus, our participation in that Life which is the True Life should be manifest in our unity with each other: “That they may be one.” Whatever else perichoresis means for the Church, it surely means that we must “dwell within” one another, giving ourselves to one another, or the world will not believe that the Son “dwells within” and “came forth from” the Father. The anthropological implication here is that the image of God which we bear includes the perichoretic relations with other finite persons as essential, that each created person is a distinct center of consciousness and will, and yet whose personhood is partly constituted by relations to other persons. The persons are real, the relations between them are real, and the intrinsic need for relationship is real. Extending the classical Thomistic idea of analogia entis (analogy to the being of God), we recognize analogia relationis (analogy to the relationality of God) as well.

Ontologically and Epistemologically Realist. Historic orthodoxy assumes a general metaphysical realism: the view that the common reality we inhabit is constituted by real entities with determinate natures which act and react to produce the manifold phenomenon we experience. One could not embrace the Nicene Creed, for example, without presupposing the existence of the self who affirms it (credo), the historical reality of other persons, such as Mary and Pontius Pilate, and the real existence of natural objects, such as light and burial places. But the Creed, as well as other formulations of the faith, also assumes the reality of God, the Trinitarian Persons, the resurrected Jesus, the mystical union of the Church, and other theological realities. Thus, ontological realism about theological entities provides the assumptions which form the truth conditions of orthodox belief. Also inherent in orthodoxy is a necessary and broad epistemological realism: the conviction that the human mind is suited to know the common realities in our experience as well as the theological realities which are the referents of our creeds, systems, and ordinary religious beliefs. To be precise, the term “critical realism” is preferred these days to denote a version of realism which is sophisticated about the complex conditions of knowledge, but which is nevertheless committed to the basic ability of the mind to know objective reality. When fully explicated, the twin realisms here—ontological and epistemological—expose the many anti-realist interpretations of the faith to be both seriously inadequate on their own terms and distortive of the nature of theological belief as it relates to the science-religion discussion. Neo-Wittgensteinian “language-game” interpretations, Kuhnian “socially supported paradigm” interpretations, and Kierkegaardian “existential necessity” interpretations have all been fashionable in assigning some non-correspondence type of “truth” to theology in order to allow religion and science to coexist in different spheres. Today, however, the onslaught of scientific atheism, led by Dawkins and Dennett, is militantly anti-realist about any form of “truth” in religion and even labors for the demise of religion as part of society’s progressive enlightenment.3 Only a robustly realist Christian orthodoxy has the philosophical compass for navigating this intense debate.

Realism about Science, Too. Of course, anti-realist approaches distort not only the proper nature of theology, but also the nature of science. While virtually all philosophies of science admit the enormous success of science in predicting and manipulating empirical phenomena, the history of the philosophy of science includes many influential anti-realist interpretations—the Vienna Circle’s logical positivism, Popper’s falsificationism, Quine’s instrumentalism, Kuhn’s social constructivism, postmodernism’s deconstructionism, etc. At stake here, primarily, is the existence and knowability of unobservable entities, but other areas of anti-realist attention include the scientific method in relation to the justification of scientific beliefs, causal laws, and the notion of scientific progress.4 Once again, a healthy epistemological and ontological realism—this time in the philosophy of science—affords crucial insight into the nature and intellectual integrity of science, and supports an understanding of science that can credibly interact with realist theology. Only a realist approach to science, therefore, is able to contribute its fair share to an integrated view of reality.5

Natural Law. Natural law moral theory extends the above endorsement of a healthy realism to the moral realm as well. No confusion need exist between this classical meaning of natural law as the law of human nature—specifically, our moral nature—and the modern meaning, which pertains to scientific descriptions of regularities in the physical world. Classical natural law thinking, with roots in Aristotle and Aquinas, affirms the objectivity of moral values and principles as well as the human ability to make reliable judgments about them. Moral realism, then, is best treated as part of the larger realist tradition which includes ontological and epistemological realism. In fact, a positive realist ontology of our common human nature supports universal moral insights about how human beings ought to act and be treated. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis observes that the pervasive moral precepts and judgments of humankind are variously called “Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes.”6 For Christians, the telos inherent in human nature is nothing less than our destiny in the life of God, characterized in part by moral and spiritual virtues, thus providing the link between natural law theory and virtue theory.7 Moral realism bears on the science-religion discussion in a variety of ways—including its affirmation that we can know objective nonempirical realities as well as its inherent ability to overcome the alleged fact-value dichotomy by anchoring morality in metaphysical and moral facts about human nature. I will not go into an excursus here about the superiority of natural law moral theory over divine command ethics, but I note that further analysis would reveal fascinating similarities in how the dualism in divine command approaches is related to various other dualisms that present unnecessary obstacles to desired progress in the science-religion area (e.g., interventionism as the primary mode of divine activity in the world, mind-body substance dualism, etc.).

In part four, Peterson will begin to discuss the larger themes of science.


1. See, for example, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Yonkers, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997) and Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Harper and Row, New York, 1981).

2. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 18.16. See also the quite colorful website entitled “Seeking God in Einstein’s Universe: Into the Weirdness” which uses the theme of the dance of the universe to paint a colorful scientific view of reality in relation to the perichoretic understanding of the Trinitarian Persons.

3. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006).

4. For surveys of approaches, consult the following: David Papineau (ed.), The Philosophy of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); James Ladyman, Understanding Philosophy of Science (London: Routledge, 2001); Stewart Brock and Edwin Mares, Realism and Anti-Realism (Durham: Acumen Publishing, 2007). 

5. See the following: Ernan McMullin, “A Case for Scientific Realism” in Scientific Realism, edited by Jarett Leplin (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984); Rom Harré, Varieties of Realism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986); Edward Madden and Rom Harré, Causal Powers (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976); Stathis Psillos, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth (London: Routledge, 1999); Michael Peterson, “Critical Realism” in Science and Religion Primer, edited by Heidi Campbell and Heather Looy (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).

6. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947), p. 56; see also p. 84.

7. For a recent exploration of this linkage, see Craig Boyd, A Shared Morality: A Narrative Defense of Natural Law Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2007).


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BioLogos Editorial Team

Written by BioLogos Editorial Team.