Deep Resonances between Science and Theology, Part 5

| By Michael L. Peterson

This is the fifth 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 four of this six part series, Peterson presents some of the major themes that emerge from the various disciplines—biology, astronomy, physics, etc.—that comprise contemporary science. The discussion of these themes continues into part five.

Relationality. At a variety of levels, a deep-seated interconnectivity inherent in the fabric of the physical world—as opposed to localized, atomistic individuality—is revealed to us by contemporary science. Impressive examples of this relationality are not difficult to find. Classical Newtonian physics conceived of physical processes in terms of the collisions of individual atoms moving in the container of absolute space in the course of unfolding absolute time. However, twentieth century physics is shaped by Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which maintains that judgments of simultaneity and of time duration are not absolute but instead are relative to the state of motion of the observer. In Einstein’s general theory of relativity, space is likewise not absolute, but is closely related to matter and time in a kind of interconnected package: matter curves spacetime and spacetime curves the paths of matter. Another example is the work by Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen showing that quantum theory implies that two particles, once they have interacted, remain mutually entangled, regardless of how far they are separated. In effect, they become a single system; this is the famous EPR effect. Still another case of amazing relationality within the universe is provided by chaos theory in which an infinitesimally small uncertainty concerning initial conditions can lead to enormous uncertainties in predicting subsequent behavior. Literally, the effect of moving an electron on a distant galaxy might be amplified over a long period of time to alter events on Earth. Generalizing this point, James Gliek states:

There are fundamental laws about complex systems, but they are new kinds of laws. They are laws of structure and organization and scale, and they simply vanish when you focus on the individual constituents of a complex system—just as the psychology of a lynch mob vanishes when you interview individual participants.1

Atomism, reductionism, and determinism in science have long been superseded by relational concepts of a higher order subsuming the laws of particular levels, of the interaction of parts and wholes, and of continuity and emergence.

Relationality in the Life Sciences. The sciences in aggregate are moving in a decidedly holistic direction; more and more, relationships are coming to light and are being regularly reinforced by new breakthroughs. Who among us can forget the astonishing announcement in 1987 in the journal Nature that three geneticists had identified humanity’s most recent common ancestor, a woman who lived in Africa 200,000 years ago? By tracing back the DNA in our mitochondria, we eventually arrive at a single woman from whom all women alive today received their mitochondrial DNA. This does not mean that this “Mitochondrial Eve” was the only woman alive at the time nor does it conclusively prove the existence of a single primal couple, but when coupled with other genetic studies (such as Y-Chromosome Adam), it provides strong evidence that our DNA came from a small original population of only a few thousand individuals, and shows clearly the connectedness of biological life. Although paleontology, biogeology, comparative anatomy, and embryology gave early support to the universal Tree of Life evolutionary concept, now molecular biology, utilizing advanced computer technology, complete sequences of the DNA of living organisms for comparison in precise quantifiable terms. The astounding similarities at the molecular level confirm the phylogenetic design of the Tree of Life; indeed a computer—without the fossil record or anatomical observations of various life forms—can now construct the Tree based solely upon the similarities of the DNA sequences of multiple organisms. Francisco Ayala states:

Molecular biology proves evolution in two ways: first by showing the unity of life in the nature of DNA and the workings of organisms at the level of enzymes and other protein molecules; second, . . . by making it possible to reconstruct evolutionary relationships that were previously unknown, and to confirm, refine, and time all evolutionary relationships from the universal common ancestor up to all living organisms.2

Evolution is the only rational way to account for the molecular uniformity of all organisms, given that numerous alternative structures and fundamental processes are, in principle, equally likely. Moreover, the accumulation of damaged or “junk” DNA (mutations that do not affect function and thus are not subject to negative selection), passed on over time to species further down that branch of the Tree, makes the probability that evolution did not occur infinitesimally small. Altogether, this means that the evolution of all living things through common descent possesses an extraordinarily high degree of probability conferred by thousands of (published) empirical tests, as high a probability as science can generate.3

Toward a Unified Vision

As Edwin Burtt has taught us, the enterprise of science requires metaphysical interpretation—not because of its inherent incompleteness and continual need for further progress, but because it rests on assumptions not provable by its own methods and because its discoveries raise philosophical questions not answerable on its own terms.4 It was Wittgenstein who remarked that, when the totality of scientific facts has been catalogued, all that is really important remains unsayable5. Still, we cannot acquiesce in Wittgensteinian silence about a larger metaphysical framework for science since the human drive to make total sense of reality cannot be suppressed. Furthermore, it is not just the enterprise of science per se that requires metaphysical interpretation, or meta-interpretation, as John Polkinghorne calls it: the overall evolutionary shape of science must also be thoroughly addressed within any comprehensive worldview. The atheistic community, of course, co-opts the scientific facts of evolution to serve as the basis of a reductionistic and materialistic worldview—a view which asserts the sufficiency of empirical inquiry, the self-existence of the physical, the survival basis of values, the complete continuity of humanity with the animals, and the lack of ultimate meaning in the universe. No wonder so many people, both laity and academics, cannot distinguish the science from the philosophy! However, we must not surrender the truths of evolutionary science to philosophical naturalism. Classical Christianity’s picture of reality involves themes which, properly understood, are profoundly evolutionary, and thus, constitute part of a welcoming metaphysical interpretation of the scientific facts. Evolution, then, is an absolutely essential concept—not only scientifically, but also theologically. For this reason, John Haught speaks of “evolutionary theology,” explicitly adding that qualifier which was always implicit in my earlier list.6

There is, indeed, a strangeness to what we know scientifically about ourselves and our place in the universe. As told by astrophysics and astrochemistry, the process of cosmic evolution began with the Big Bang, the high energy point from which all else sprang, until cooling allowed hydrogen and helium to form. Then, continued expansion and cooling allowed gravity to take over and condense matter into galaxies and their stars.These stars could become nuclear cookeries to form the other elements and then, explode in death to scatter the new elements into the environment. Eventually, this resulted in the condensation of second generation stars that could attract planets made of materials that would permit the next big development. On at least one planet, Earth, conditions of temperature, radiation, and chemical environment permitted the development of quite elaborate molecules with the power of replicating themselves. From this point, the evolutionary story, as continued by genetics, anthropology, paleontology, and molecular biology, provides much finer granularity to the picture of how evolution has played out on Earth. This all may seem strange, but truth is sometimes like that. Accepting the scientific story at its own level, a classically Christian meta-interpretation—in contrast to one that is obsessed with beginnings—is guided by the conviction that creation is not only past, (creatio originalis) but ongoing as well (creatio continua). Creation, therefore, necessarily involves God’s progressive ordering, blessing, and empowering. Psalm 104, for example, certainly suggests a Creator who is continuously and creatively active.

Classical orthodoxy teaches that the self-existent, self-sufficient, self-giving Triune God created in order to invite the creature into his own divine life. This intimate communion is the goal which can only be achieved by kenosis broadly understood: that God allows the created other truly to be itself, indeed, to “make” itself, thus developing a self-identity distinct from the Creator that can return freely in love to the Creator. A genuinely kenotic creation, then, makes possible a greater good than a ready-made creation ever could, since it allows real contingency, which is nothing less than openness to alternative possibilities within lawful structure so that divinely given potentiality can be brought to specifically realized actuality in the historical process of the world. Wolfhart Pannenberg observes that taking contingency seriously as a direct implication of the doctrine of creation is crucial to detaching religious thinking from mechanistic, and therefore static, ideas of design—and thus ultimately to seeing design as a comparatively secondary issue. Pannenberg explains:

Much more important in the dialogue between theology and science is the issue of contingency—both in the broad sense of the contingent emergence and existence of everything created and in the more special function of contingency as a source of novelty.7

Contingency as a source of novelty means that there can be an actual history—of both nature and human affairs—and a meaningful future. Contingency is integral to a comprehensive concept of kenosis that avoids the determinism which the denial of contingency implies. Of course, the kenotic openness of reality means that there will be cost as contingencies within the subhuman creation sometimes lead to blind genetic alleys and even to harmful genetic mutations such as cancer, as the evolving creation seeks ever new kinds of fruitfulness—a point that must be addressed in any comprehensive theodicy.8 Contingencies at the human level include the goods of creative invention, noble actions, and selfless service as well as the evils of betrayal and murder. So, the good and the bad occur in the realm of freedom made possible by that great creative act.

In the final part of this series, Peterson will delve into an even deeper theological study of this relationship between evolution and Christianity.


1. James Gliek in the closing address at the 1990 Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College; quoted by Steven Weinberg in Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 61.
2. Francisco Ayala, Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007), p. 118.
3. It is actually quite fair to say that evolution shares equal status with such established concepts as the roundness of the Earth, its revolution around the sun, and the molecular composition of matter. See Ayala,Darwin’s Gift, pp. 130-132.
4. Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1924).
5. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge, 2001), Propositions 6.52 through 6.53.
6.John Haught, God after Darwin (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2000), p. 36 [emphasis mine]. Regarding biological evolution, Robert John Russell further explains: “It is . . . reductionistic and materialistic philosophy as an interpretation of evolution that Christians must oppose. In its place Christians must offer an alternative interpretation of neo-Darwinian evolution that recognizes it as ultimately the work of God.” Robert John Russell,“Evolution and Christian Faith,” America: National Catholic Weekly 194, no. 6 (February 20, 2006).
7. Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Contributions from Systematic Theology” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, edited by Philip Clayton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 363.
8. See my “The Strong Darwinian Problem of Human Pain,” which was a product of the Venice Summer School of Science and Religion on the topic of Evolution and Human Uniqueness, Venice, Italy (May 26-30, 2009).


About the Author

Michael L. Peterson

Michael L. Peterson is professor of philosophy at Asbury University. He is also managing editor of Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His books include Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford); God and Evil(Westview); With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (Notre Dame); and Evil and the Christian God(Baker). He has produced multiple edited volumes and journal articles.


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