Sarah Lane Ritchie
 on February 08, 2017

Challenging the Standard Models of Science and Faith

In Science and Christianity, Jim Stump demonstrates the insufficiencies of the standard models of relationship between science and religion.


As someone with a passion for understanding the relationship between science and theology, I’ve read innumerable books on the subject. In my experience, book-length introductions to the science and theology conversation often resort to surface-level tropes about the general relationship between the fields, rarely presenting the core debates in more than a cursory manner. Jim Stump’s Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues, on the other hand, presents the actual academic arguments in the key debates, and in a manner accessible to non-experts while still being scholarly enough to satisfy even the seasoned academic. The book covers topics as wide-ranging as young-earth creationism and Intelligent Design, cosmology, divine action, the soul, and the problem of natural evil. In other words, the book is remarkably comprehensive in the range of debates it covers, without sacrificing clarity and nuance.

Book Cover

J.B. Stump, Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). 200 pages.

One inevitable debate in any science and theology textbook (or even discussion, for that matter!) involves the appropriate relationship between science and theology: Are they fundamentally at odds with one another? Should science be used selectively to support theology? Does theology offer anything to science? The possible relationships between science and theology have been debated ad nauseum in recent years, and almost always with reference to Ian Barbour’s four-fold typology of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. But is this standard typology sufficient? To be frank, many of us working in the field of science and theology find ourselves increasingly frustrated by these choices. While academics endlessly debate the relative merits of one or another model, many of us have a growing sense that standard typologies like Barbour’s somehow just don’t quite fit. That is, we have a sense that the relationship between science and theology is not adequately captured in one of the standard models. Because of this frustration, I was delighted to see that Stump’s book offers a refreshing and nuanced perspective on the relationship(s) between science and theology – though, I suggest, one that can be challenged.

Stump’s book is worth reading if only for the historical background it provides on key science and theology debates. This is especially true when it comes to the standard models for science and theology. Right off the bat, Stump addresses the conflict model (the idea that science and theology are fundamentally opposed to each other), emphasizing that social perceptions of science and theology often lack appropriate nuance. For example, contemporary historical work demonstrates that Galileo’s infamous conflict with the Church was not really about scientific knowledge, but about who had the authority to interpret the Bible. While few in the science and theology world subscribe to the conflict model, it is still enormously prevalent in wider culture, and thus worth addressing. Stump goes on to discuss the independence model. This is the idea that science and theology are both valid projects, but either use different tools to understand the same phenomena, or investigate different phenomena altogether. This model has become quite popular in recent years, as it grants science and theology validity in their respective domains. The problem, critics argue, is that the dividing line between these respective domains can be extremely blurry. Stump then explores the dialogue model, but does so using the handmaiden metaphor – the idea that secular knowledge can serve as a “handmaiden” to theology, the “queen of the sciences.” According to Stump, the contemporary version of this debate “is essentially about the extent to which it is reasonable to claim that Christianity has significantly influenced science” (26). Many would argue that science, supposedly the “handmaiden” to theology, “has usurped the queen of the sciences, and she herself has become the master” (26). This is the secularization thesis, or the idea that theology must inevitably cede explanatory control to the ever-advancing progress of contemporary science.

These, then, are the basic models that Stump addresses in the book. What is perhaps most interesting, however, is Stump’s suggestion that we need not commit to any single model; perhaps it is the case that “we must select the appropriate tool depending on the subject matter being studied” (39). In other words, perhaps we actually do need to adopt a conflict model at certain times, when science and Christianity seem to be vying for the same explanatory ground. And certainly there are plenty of instances where it is appropriate to adopt a dialogue model, in order to see how science and theology are, or could be, influencing each other. This seems like a very honest approach to the science and theology field. Every debate is unique, requiring an approach that is as distinct as are the fields of biology, physics, cosmology, and theology themselves.

Later in the book, Stump’s own perspective on the interaction between science and Christianity comes through a bit more strongly. In his chapters on divine action and the mind/brain, Stump suggests that “scientific explanation and personal (or theological) explanations are talking about the same thing, just appealing to different aspects of it” (130). So what does this mean? Stump asks us to imagine that an artist and a chemist are inspecting a portrait – how will each describe what they are seeing? The chemist could discuss the chemical makeup of the paint itself, or perhaps the properties of the canvas and pigments used. The artist, however, would speak of the expression and emotion of the subject, or perhaps the aesthetics of shading and color. Clearly, both the artist and the chemist would be technically “correct” in their explanation of the portrait, though perhaps incapable of fully seeing through the other’s “lens.”

Stump applies this model to both divine action and the mind/brain. Divine action, for example, is a notoriously thorny subject. Given the remarkable explanatory success of contemporary science (which depends on the reliability of identifiable physical causes), divine action in the natural world can be tricky to understand. Must we choose between a scientific explanation of physical events and God’s action? Stump would suggest not: “these two kinds of explanations…don’t cancel each other out, but complement each other.” (132) He then applies this same approach to the human mind. What are we to make of the mind, brain, and soul? As the various brain sciences provide increasingly detailed knowledge about the brain and cognitive functioning, it becomes increasingly likely that the mind is subject to naturalistic explanation in scientific terms. But does this then mean that humans are not spiritual, or will not exist in some form after death? Again, Stump rejects this sort of dichotomy. He suggests that both scientific and personal accounts of the mind “can be full descriptions of a person from their perspective, but they are just perspectives. Each is like a lens through which humans are viewed” (143). Here again, Stump suggests that both science and theology are equally legitimate approaches to the phenomena in question, but are examining different aspects of it (this is what Roger Scruton calls “cognitive dualism.”)

I admit that I find Stump’s perspective on the different “levels” of explanation to be compelling, but wonder if it is perhaps too easy of an answer. First of all, how should we categorize what is apparently Stump’s preferred approach to science and theology? Certainly this is not a conflict model, nor does it seem to fit into the dialogue paradigm. The approach feels quite similar to the independence model, insofar as both science and theology are given full legitimacy. It does not fit with the “non-overlapping magisteria” version of independence, though, as Stump is clearly saying that scientific and theological accounts are indeed addressing the same phenomena – just different aspects of it. Could it be that Stump’s approach lies somewhere between an independence model and the integration model, in which science and theology could theoretically be integrated into a single, synthesized system? It is indeed noteworthy that Stump does not specifically elaborate on the integration model, which makes room for a robust, all-encompassing theology of nature. My hunch is that Stump’s approach to science and theology is a prime example of the insufficiency of standard science and theology typologies. That is, Stump’s approach to all the debates in this book is nuanced, affirmative of both science and theology, and open to legitimizing various perspectives on the same phenomena.

Regardless of how we might categorize Stump’s model, questions remain. Specifically, I wish Jim would have shown in more detail how his model makes sense of the thorny cases. It is extremely appealing to justify both science and theology as equally legitimate lenses through which to view the natural world. But what happens when this is applied to the details of specific phenomena, when it seems that the explanations must be in competition with each other? For example, this approach can be applied to divine action – say, in a sick person being healed in a miraculous manner. It seems as if, in this case, Jim’s model would say that this specific healing would be an instance of God’s action, and could also be fully explainable in scientific terms. But science relies on what is called the “causal closure of the physical,” or the idea that all physical events have physical causes. A theological account of the event might introduce divine action, but this would be incompatible with an explicitly scientific account.  If God were to heal a sick person, then at some point God would have to interact with physical processes, actually altering the cells and molecules of the body. It is difficult to see how both God and the physical causes could bring about the same event – or at least how theology and science could offer equally valid explanations of that event. Indeed, one gets the impression that science would actually need to claim a proprietary explanation over that event – because that is what science does. My only concern in using the “two lens” model is that it enables us to let ourselves off the hook too easily. Going forward, the science and theology conversation will need to explore ways of offering robust theological accounts of the natural world, while still taking the actual science involved just as seriously as do scientists themselves.

Of course, this does not invalidate Stump’s approach to science and theology. In fact, I deem his perspective of multiple explanatory levels to be the strongest approach available at the moment. Any challenges I would raise are the same questions I ask myself. Perhaps this is actually one of the exciting aspects of science and theology: our models are constantly being stretched, and this is a good thing.  And almost certainly, we will need to get beyond the standard models of interaction that have become so ill-fitting. For this reason alone, Stump’s Science and Christianity is one of the best, if not the best, introductory texts available in science and theology.

What does it mean to be “natural”? At first glance, the answer to this question might seem obvious. The laptop I’m using, the air I’m breathing, and the trees in my front yard are all natural, we might say, because they are made of the same fundamental “building blocks” of electrons, molecules, and quarks. But consider more difficult examples: Is religion natural? Is the mind or soul natural? Things get complicated very quickly when we try to define what nature is, and how God relates to nature. As Jim Stump writes in his new book Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues, “nature is not an uninterpreted concept” (91). How we think about nature and “the natural” is not only informed by our (often unconscious) theological and philosophical assumptions, but is also vitally important for how we engage with the science and theology conversation.

Jim’s book is refreshingly nuanced in its discussions of what, exactly, it means to be natural in the first place. One common distinction is between methodological and metaphysical naturalism, where methodological naturalism is the basic scientific commitment to using only natural causes and beings in scientific explanation. Metaphysical (or ontological) naturalism, on the other hand, is a much stronger claim. It states that the only things that exist are natural entities. So, one could be a methodological naturalist (that is, assume that only natural causes are relevant to scientific inquiries) without being a metaphysical naturalist—this is why Christians can be good scientists. Christians generally reject metaphysical naturalism because of their beliefs in a supernatural God, in (perhaps) supernatural souls and in supernatural divine action in the natural world. As Jim writes, “For the Christian, there is no assumption that the tools of science give an exhaustive description of reality. Rather, if they hold to methodological naturalism, they are committed to the claim that science is necessarily limited in what it can discover about reality, because it does not deal with the supernatural” (71).

So far, so good: Christians can be methodological naturalists, but reject metaphysical naturalism because they believe in a supernatural God. This implies that science is necessarily limited, insofar as it cannot explain all of reality. Note, however, that we still haven’t defined “natural,” other than to say that it is definitely not the supernatural. But this is unhelpful—if we are defining the natural by saying that it is not the supernatural, we very quickly start going in circles. Moreover, science has a long history of eventually providing naturalistic explanations for phenomena previously assumed to be wholly supernatural. Besides this, how do we know that there are no supernatural realities if we preemptively prohibit the supernatural as an explanation? Methodological naturalism, for example, might seem like a perfectly reasonable way to approach empirical phenomena, but what if those phenomena really do have a supernatural cause?  As Jim aptly notes, “the trouble with adopting methodological naturalism is that it seems we have to predetermine what counts as natural” (71). And if supernatural realities do exist and are active in the natural world, then a full account of the natural world would necessarily include an account of the supernatural. As Jim concludes (rightly, in my view): “The correct implication…is not that reality itself is completely describable by science. Rather, it is to assert that science provides only a limited view of reality” (78).

If we agree with Jim’s conclusion that science is limited in what it can tell us about reality (and possibly the natural world), how then should we understand nature—or, perhaps more accurately, nature in relationship to God? Jim points out that “the concept of nature is a social construction;” various thinkers and cultures throughout history have thought of nature in significantly different ways (90). For example, Aristotle considered nature to be only those things occurring without human intervention (so, movies and music are not natural). Post-Enlightenment thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries redefined the concept of nature, such that “the natural” was that which was describable by mathematical regularities; this is very much the “clockwork” universe heralded by natural theologians of the time. The discovery of quantum realities in the 20th century transformed the idea of nature yet again, introducing chance and probability into the mix. Again—“nature is not an uninterpreted concept” (91).

The reality that nature is an interpreted concept, I suggest, justifies Christians seeking a robust theology of nature. In other words, once we have established that there is no neutral, objective understanding of “the natural,” we can confidently explore the various ways in which Christians might envision the relationship between God and the natural world—between God and creation. For example, this might invite us to question the assumption that the natural world is autonomous or self-sufficient apart from God’s presence. It is common for people (including Christians) to talk about the natural world as a self-contained machine of sorts, while thinking of God as a supernatural being outside that system who—perhaps—occasionally steps in to act. Or, we might think of our bodies as natural systems, but our minds and souls as uniquely spiritual in some way. But if we develop an explicitly Christian theology of nature that emphasizes God’s active presence and immanence in all creation at all times, there is no reason to partition off natural spheres of reality from the supernatural. We don’t need to be afraid of naturalistic explanations, because God is involved with all natural realities in the first place. Perhaps a full account of the natural world not only includes reference to God as Creator, but also includes an account of God’s presence in, and interaction with, the world as part of what makes it fully natural. As theologian Chris Knight suggests, it may be that what most “call naturalism is…in fact no more than subnaturalism. Only in the context of what has been revealed to us by God can the universe in which we live be fully understood” (Knight 2007, The God of Nature, 95). By recognizing that nature is an interpreted concept in any case, Christians have the opportunity to discover and develop a theology of nature that is far more robust than may have been imagined. As Jim writes, “seeing nature as God’s creation may be an interpretation, but if Christians are right, it is the correct interpretation of what nature is” (91).

About the author

Sarah Lane Ritchie

Sarah Lane Ritchie

Sarah Lane Ritchie is Lecturer in Theology and Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh, where her doctoral work focused on the question of divine action in the human mind. A Michigander by birth, Sarah also holds a BA in Philosophy and Religion from Spring Arbor University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and an MSc in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh. Her published work focuses on questions arising from the intersection of theology, philosophy, and the various brain-related sciences. Sarah’s research interests include divine action, philosophy of mind, naturalism, cognitive science of religion, and the psychology of belief formation.

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