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Bethany Sollereder
 on October 17, 2015

Lost in a World of Maps: Relations between Science and Theology

How are science and religion related? Imagine a map.


Intro by Jim Stump: I’m pleased to feature Dr. Bethany Sollereder on FESQI today.  She is one of the next generation of scholars who has been trained specifically in the academic field of science and religion.  Her map metaphor seems to me to be particularly fruitful for understanding how science and theology are related.

There are lots of ways of thinking about how science relates to theology. Is it a conflict, a competition, a dialogue, a discussion, an engagement, or a partnership? Here is how I think of it: Imagine you are looking at a map of a city. What do you see?

Chances are you imagined a road map and thought of the direction of traffic, the width of the roads, and the names of streets and buildings. That would be an accurate representation of the city. But imagine you are an expert on urban sewage. A map of the exact same area would appear radically different. Sewers and underground power lines would snake across the page with their own coherence and rationale. Roads would no longer necessarily be the defining pathways. A sociologist’s map of the same area would reveal different realities yet again: space would be divided according to the age, ethnicity, socio-economic, and political identities of the inhabitants. A historian might create a map of what the city looked like a hundred years ago, reflecting roads and sewage lines in ways that will resemble the contemporary maps, but with important and sometimes irreconcilable differences.

Which map describes the true reality that is the city? We can see at once that it is a silly question. All of them describe, in different and imperfect ways, the city. In fact, their various imperfections are vital to their usefulness. A “perfect” map would be in every way identical to the reality and that would not help us understand at all where we were!

Science and religion are both maps to reality. When we were born we entered an infinitely complex reality, and we were offered “roadmaps” to help us navigate reality: cultural, scientific, and spiritual maps that describe the context in which we find ourselves. Each is a simplified representation of a reality that is impossible to completely describe. Ask any theologian to explain what God is really like and––if they are honest––they will say that no one knows what God is really like, only how God has been revealed to us. Ask a scientist what the universe is really made of and they will tell you that we have some small understanding of the 4% of the universe made up of matter, while the rest of the universe remains largely unobserved and unknown.

Even in areas where we do know something, and do have real knowledge, both scientists and theologians express themselves with models. Whether we are talking about the Incarnation or electrons, models help us comprehend realities that are too complex for us to understand. They are like roadmaps to reality: they are very useful precisely because they are not the real thing, but a representation of it.

Now, if figuring out how reality worked was as easy as reading an evenly scaled and properly labeled map, things would be pretty simple. Unfortunately, neither science nor religion offers such a clear picture. Coming to an understanding of reality is far more like waking up in an unknown city and finding a wooden trunk full of semi-completed hand-written parchments. Most are without labels, some are in unknown languages, and some have rather odd labels like “stomatal movement.” There is no legend on life’s maps: we are left to figure out the significance of each ourselves.

Life, then, is an adventure of trying to figure out which maps most accurately reflect our experience of the world. Whether we listen to trusted authorities or whether we explore for ourselves, discovering reality will involve some comparing of maps to each other, comparing maps to our wanderings (is there a building where the map says there should be one?) and listening to people who have traveled further than ourselves.

We enter the world with no clear guide and are given different maps by parents, friends, teachers, and the media. Some people will swear by one map or another. Some maps will be better than others for certain types of knowing. Some maps really are terribly wrong, and the sooner they are thrown into the rubbish bin of human knowledge, the better. A few things are abundantly clear:

  1. No one map or system of maps perfectly describes reality. Every map is an approximation and a reduction, a model of the real thing.
  2. The only way to discover what is real is to read carefully and try things out. See which maps are reliable for which endeavor and which lead to dead ends.
  3. Two maps can describe the same reality and show vastly different things and still both be true. A road map and a heat map of a location might look completely dissimilar, but both would tell you something true if you could read them both accurately. It would be silly to call the different maps “non-overlapping.” While the maps might describe different aspects of the reality of the city, they certainly have implications for each other. It would be deeply unwise to build a road without first consulting the maps showing underground power lines, for example. A wise investor wanting to open a new shop would certainly consult both a map showing demographics and a map showing traffic flow and parking.

I found it quite a relief when I first thought of science and theology as maps to reality. It meant that I did not have to worry about which one was perfectly right: neither of them is. As representative models, they are not meant to be perfect all-encompassing guides. In fact, it would be more accurate to speak of sciences and theologies, since each is comprised of numerous traditions and methodologies, each with different perspectives on reality. At the same time, the idea of maps opened up a great adventure of exploration. How do these guides to reality connect to each other? What are their scales and boundaries?  If my own experience and exploration leads me to redraw one map, what effect will that have on the other maps in my possession?

Every endeavor of the sciences, every biblical interpretation, the voices of theologians, philosophers, teachers, and friends all give me new ways to think about God, the world and my place in it. Fear is turned into adventure as competing or discordant models lead to delving deeper into our wondrous reality.

Of course no metaphors are perfect (just like it was noted above that no map captures all of reality).  What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the map metaphor?  Dr. Sollereder is available to respond to questions and comments on this post, which can be found here.

About the author

Bethany Sollereder

Bethany Sollereder

Dr. Bethany Sollereder is a research coordinator at the University of Oxford. She specialises in theology concerning evolution and the problem of suffering. Bethany received her PhD in theology from the University of Exeter and an MCS in interdisciplinary studies from Regent College, Vancouver. When not reading theology books, Bethany enjoys hiking the English countryside, horseback riding, and reading Victorian literature.