Learning from History? The Absorption of Scientific Worldviews into Theology

On November 09, 2015

We will soon be marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first trial in February 1616. It was then that Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the universe was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as being an heretical teaching and in contradiction to Holy Scripture. That first trial was not so much about Galileo, but on who interprets Scripture and on what basis or principles. By the late Middle Ages, Aristotelianism became absorbed within the Christian worldview. This perspective was still dominant among theologians and within academia at the time of Galileo. He was therefore combating the physics of Aristotle, which Galileo had shown to be in error by means of experiment, but which was now embodied within the Church’s theology.

George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”1 There are times when I wonder if some Christians have fully grasped the significance of the Galileo trial because, in certain quarters at least, the science and Christianity debate has a strong sense of déjà vu about it. Some Christians today have failed to grasp that a key underlying concern at the time of Galileo was over the theological implications of a non-stationary Earth. The Church’s union of theology, geocentrism, and the Aristotelian worldview provided a robust framework whereby people knew their place in the cosmos. The difficulty with the heliocentric worldview was that it displaced humankind from the center of the universe. Humankind was now drifting on one of the solar system’s many planets orbiting the sun. This was perceived as debasing to humankind, in contrast to it being the pinnacle of creation and being made “a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8:5). That problem is significantly worse today, as we now know that our sun is fairly nondescript and merely one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. And there are estimated to be 100 billion galaxies in the universe. A similar problem can be found within the evolution and creation debate. What is the status of humankind, made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27), if we are an inherent part of the animal kingdom? At the heart of both the heliocentric and evolution issues is the implied question: What, then, is the place of humankind in God’s created order? This anthropological question is one reason why the matter is so emotive.

While everyone is quite at ease with the heliocentric worldview today—and most accept what astronomers say concerning our place in the vast cosmos—many conservative Christians still wrestle with the issue of evolution. One aspect of the matter is, I suspect, that we cannot really comprehend large numbers. We cannot imagine billions of stars and galaxies, or billions of years. These descriptors of both space and time are outside of our common experience. Nevertheless, many Christians are not uncomfortable with the vastness of space and so accept most of the findings of modern astronomers. Yet, ironically, many of these same Christians deeply troubled with the timescales of billions of years that is a feature of both cosmic and biological evolution. For me, the theological response to the spatio-temporal place of humankind in God’s created order, in light of both cosmology and biological evolution, must be essentially the same. Differentiating between those two dimensions (and issues) is unnecessary, unhelpful, and unwise.

Just as Aristotelianism had been absorbed within the Christian worldview and so contributed to the conflict between Galileo and the Church, so we can ask: Has the paradigm of classical physics been uncritically absorbed into our modern theology? In the world conceived by Newton and Laplace, nature was an intricate and harmonious machine that followed unchangeable laws.2 Those laws can be understood theologically as expressing the faithfulness of God and demonstrating his sovereignty.3 Within the paradigm of classical physics it is quite straightforward to find coherence with the traditional theological doctrines, such as the view of a God who is ‘outside’ of time and foresees everything—which is the basis of predestination. If questions concerning God’s sovereignty, immutability, omniscience, and omnipotence seem destabilizing, is it because—at least in part—the certainty that is inherently implied within a mechanistic worldview has crept into our theological thinking and biases? These classical attributes of God have a long history, but they are more a result of the syncretism of Christianity and Greek thought than of an Old Testament Jewish outlook.4 These attributes can be seen to be reinforced by a mechanistic worldview, with a God “who is in (tight) control.” If the paradigm of classical physics has influenced our view of God—and clearly the rise of deism demonstrates that it did—then it is right and proper to explore the challenge(s) of the new paradigm of modern physics to theology.

Quantum mechanics, which describes atoms, molecules, and their constituents, radically challenges our common-sense view of a cause-and-effect world. This has resulted in a statistical description of nature at the microscopic level, shattering the previous closed, or clockwork, view of the cosmos. What, as Christians, are we to make of the element of chance (indeterminacy) that seems to be at the heart of nature? Does even talking about the role of chance in nature fill us with fear because it challenges our desire for ‘control,’ if not by us, at least by an all-powerful God? Or does it fill us with excitement over an open world that is pregnant with new possibilities.

God’s action in the world has been traditionally viewed in terms of sustaining order through the laws of nature. More recently scientist-theologians are recognizing God’s providential care of the cosmos through chance as well as order—i.e. through both contingency and necessity. Divine action is less rigid and more fluid than has been traditionally asserted, not least by the doctrine of predestination. Living with the inherent uncertainty that this new fluidity demands is, I suggest, a normal part of our postmodern journey of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).

In conclusion, I advocate that the quest for modernism’s certainty, which is embodied in physical and theological determinism, needs to be abandoned. The mechanistic view of the world is officially dead, even if it dies slowly in our consciousness. Let us not resurrect it within our theology and so inhibit our view of God’s capabilities and activities in the world. The case of Galileo proved, ultimately, to be a corrective to the Church’s outlook—not least in terms of hermeneutics. If we believe that God is at work in history, as I do, then we have grounds to expect the present science-theology interface to be a similar enlightening work of the Spirit.

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