Antonios Kaldas

Peter Harrison and Paul Tyson (eds.): “New Directions in Theology and Science: Beyond Dialogue”

Vol. 3
12 February, 2024

Book Reviewed by Antonios Kaldas, February 2024

New Directions in Theology and Science: Beyond Dialogue
By Peter Harrison and Paul Tyson (eds.)
London and New York: Routledge, 2022; 220 pages
ISBN-13 9781032146447, 1st edition, paperback

So much has been written about the relationship between science and theology over the past two hundred or so years that it is hard to imagine that anything terribly new remains to be said on the matter. Yet as the title suggests, that is precisely the goal of this volume, and it is certainly thought-provoking, although I leave it to the reader to decide how much of its ideas are “new” (see below).

The volume springs from an international and interdisciplinary research project based at the University of Queensland, the home of its two editors. Apart from them, and Charles Taylor (McGill University, Montreal, Canada), all the authors are based in either the UK, Australia, or Norway. The absence of authors from the USA, where perhaps the environment has its own challenges, is interesting.

The central premise of the book is that contemporary science–theology dialogue is plagued with apparently insoluble problems that severely limit the possibility of genuine dialogue. Peter Harrison’s Gifford Lectures in 2011 (The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)) attempted to reframe the interaction. This research project and volume might plausibly be seen as building upon that valuable work by further exploring the nature of these problems, their historical roots, and exploring ways to get around them.

What problems? A recurrent theme of the book is that the very categories of “religion” and “science” are themselves relatively recent inventions with often narrow definitions that have straight-jacketed how we think about their relationship. Another is that scholars today are too specialised and find it hard to bridge disciplines. When they do talk to each other, science is often assumed to have an authority that theology lacks, and theology at best commentates from the sidelines rather than engaging on the playing field. Scientism often gets a free pass while theology is cast as fanaticism. All this assumes a conflict model of the relationship, rather than the three other models elaborated by Ian Barbour: independence, dialogue, or integration (When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers or Partners? (Harper San Francisco, 2000))

From a Christian perspective, such a state is less than optimal, but it is increasingly sub- optimal from a scientific perspective as well. In the field of cognitive science (not discussed in this volume), for example, much fruitful research has arisen from engagement with non-western, non-secular, and non-modern traditions of thought. How might a more fruitful engagement between science and theology develop more generally in the future? A rich smorgasbord of innovative chapters provides a great deal of food for thought.

One class of solutions brings to bear relevant historical perspectives. Andrew Davidson reminds us that historically, this conflict is a relatively recent aberration, and Michael Northcott employs this history to offer an explanation for our desperate difficulty as modern people in dealing with the existential crisis of climate change. Theology can help temper the excesses of metaphysically reductive materialism that seem now to be hindering scientific progress. Nathan Lyons convincingly demolishes the central premise of Richard Dawkins’ influential book, The Selfish Gene, which implausibly casts all human life and its apparent meaning and purpose as the insignificant accidental by-product of DNA replication. We can no longer pretend that scientific questions do not have moral or ethical dimensions—and theology is perfectly poised to address precisely these questions.

This cuts to the heart of one of the reasons for the conflict: scientists (not science, mind you, which is metaphysically neutral) make unjustified and unscientific assumptions. Theology (and philosophy, or theology using philosophy) has the resources to course-correct and lead to better science; that is, science that produces more accurate and more useful results. Thus, Paul Tyson describes one way this might happen—a return to Aristotelian / Neoplatonist first philosophy as a much better way of interpreting scientific inquiry and thereby making more sense of the world. Knut Alfsvåg shows how Nicolas of Cusa (fifteenth century), Martin Luther (sixteenth century), and Johann Georg Hamann (eighteenth century) made cases against the reductionist materialism that arose with William of Ockham and co. in the Middle Ages. They provide a model not only for the Christian, but also for the scientist, to pursue knowledge and understanding more holistically, neglecting neither matter nor meaning.

Charles Taylor’s Afterword presents a brief overview of the Axial Age (c. 500BC) as the framework for a discussion of modern western disenchantment (losing the sense of magic and hierarchy) and social unbundling (fractionating of life’s belonging and activities). It ties many of the strands from other chapters together beautifully and left me (as ever with Taylor) with a far clearer and deeper sense of what has been going on all around me.

A second class of solutions is to look for avenues of engagement between applied science and theology. Simone Kotva points out that religions are still the largest transnational bodies in the world and therefore must be involved in serious scientific issues such as dealing with climate change. She goes on in the chapter to discuss an example of this—a climate change observatory in the Solomon Islands run by the Anglican Church together with the local community—faith-based citizen science saving the world. Keith R. Fox asks what it is that motivates scientific research, and researchers themselves. However pure the researcher’s motives, the drive for profit constrains and dictates much funding research, replacing historically-earlier motivations such as wonder and piety. Dare we risk entrusting the power of science into the hands of a community with no overarching moral narrative? Scripture is capable of supplying just such a narrative, as illustrated by Tom McLeish and David Wilkinson’s exegesis of the relationship between God and humanity found in Job and Colossians.

A third class of solutions addresses the perception of science and theology in the public sphere. David Wilkinson provides a balanced appraisal of the role that contemporary media can play in the relationship between science and theology. He points out the dangers, but also very persuasively highlights the positive potential. Sotiris Mitralexis provides a sobering assessment of scientism as a kind of “techno-religion” with its own eschatology whereby we seek to transcend homo sapiens and become our own divinities, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or his heir, Harari’s Homo Deus, critiquing the latter in some detail.

As should by now be clear, the future envisaged here is plural: “new directions” … “there is no one direction of travel, and no single path for the future of science–religion discussions” (p. 6). The appeal of many of the authors to healthier historical frameworks is a desperately needed remedy to the unhealthily constricted perspectives that abound today, but it does raise the question of what exactly it is that is “new” about the directions here sketched out. Perhaps it is their new solutions to new problems, such as Kotva’s Anglican citizen science? Or the sheer power to inform and persuade wielded by those who know how to use today’s media? Even Lyons’ elegant concept of the “inflation of nature”—“theologians sometimes expect too little of nature” (p. 79)—while a brilliant diagnosis of, and solution to, the problem, is ultimately a call to return to an older way of thinking about, and relating to, nature.

Then again, it is perhaps only one of those false modern assumptions that what is new must be better than what is old. It certainly was not considered thus in pre-modern times! The value of this volume is that it will make us modern readers think in ways that are new for us, and hopefully light a path forward that takes us sensibly back to the route we ought never have abandoned in the first place.

Response by Paul Tyson to Antonios Kaldas’ review of New Directions in Theology and Science, by Peter Harrison and Paul Tyson (eds.)

As one of the editors I am most appreciative of the Very Rev. Dr Antonios Kaldas’ thoughtful and constructive review of New Directions in Theology and Science. To have the book so carefully and constructively read by such an intelligent and informed interlocutor is a delight from this editor’s point of view.

Even so, there are two small points I would like to make by way of a response.

Dr Kaldas’ central point—that many of our contributors are actually trying to do something old, rather than something new—is something I agree with entirely. But, of course, trying to do something old in a new context is still a new direction if nobody else is trying it. Many of the volume’s contributors are wondering out loud if metaphysical theology, appealing to some of the patristic and medieval masters of our Christian theological heritage, and appealing to Milbank’s powerful analysis of modern secularism as itself a theological construct, can be critically interfaced with the contemporary sciences. This leads to the second point.

There are a range of views in the volume, some very affirming of a sympathy between modern science and biblical, patristic, and medieval understandings of the meaning of creation and knowledge, and some more critical. But I would not describe those critical voices (such as myself) as representative of Barbour’s conflict paradigm. As useful and domain enriching as Barbour’s Science and Religion models of independence, dialogue, integration, and conflict were, New Directions is not prepared to assume that any of these models can genuinely progress the “science and religion” domain now. As Dr Kaldas indicates, once one can no longer believe that “science” and “religion” are natural kinds, then Barbour’s models no longer adequately describe the sort of complex and ever moving relationship between the broad church of contemporary Western natural philosophies (the sciences) and the broad church of living Christian theologies. Which is to say that Peter Harrison’s work in exploding the conflict myth historically, and his work in exploding any natural kinds understanding of what science and religion “are,” requires an entirely new approach to the “science and religion” domain. Even if some of New Directions’ theological approaches to natural philosophy are critical of the widespread methodological and metaphysical assumptions embedded in the theory and practices of contemporary science, this is not a “science and religion” conflict problem if we no longer hold that science and religion themselves can be usefully defined into separate models of interaction (friendly or not) or non-interaction. How can we do “science and religion” scholarship after dropping essentialist and delineated definitions of science and religion? This is not a conflict question as this is a question outside of Barbour’s four models.

I think Harrison’s work forces us to acknowledge that relationships between our understanding of high meaning and the natural world are always intimately and inextricably entwined. This being so, we have to start thinking outside of the contained boxes of trans-historical, neatly separated, and conveniently definable Science and Religion. This is quite frightening, as we have become accustomed to those boxes as dependable and ordering features of our lifeworld. And I must say that trying to think after Science and Religion was decidedly more challenging that I had anticipated. And even if we can succeed, this does not mean that there is no use for these boxes, and it does not even mean that it would be possible for us to do without those boxes, in at least some regards. But Harrison’s insight does mean that the post-Christianisation of the West that has followed the territorial separation of Science from Religion—and the evolution of their mutually exclusive definitions—from roughly 1870 to 1970, does not leave us at a stable destination. New Directions is trying to conceptually name and theologically address our present instability, and it is a very provisional and exploratory attempt to so do.

It is also the case that conflict is complicated. The “myth of conflict” is now deeply integral with the de-Christianising educational formation of our pragmatic and functionally materialist lifeworld. This myth has no basis in history, but it remains a motherhood truth of our modern (and postmodern) secularised intellectual culture. There remains a live need to combat the conflict myth (nota bene, this combat is itself a form of conflict) by organisations such as ISCAST. But, I would argue, it is also the case that Christians have become overly scared of any sort of first order conflict with the secularising worldview that uses science as an ersatz and assumed anti-Christian theology. The twentieth-century battle between fundamentalist materialist Darwinians and fundamentalist six-day creationists is pretty well spent (thank God!), but that was always something of a sideshow to the relentless scientistic de-Christianisation of the West in the twentieth century. Scientism really has been the means of culturally transforming the West away from publicly accepted Christian assumptions. Lovers of science who are Christians should stop pretending this hasn’t happened. We need to be mature enough to not have to continuously display how much we accept the authority of modern science so that we can display ourselves as credible modern Christians.

As an explanatory addendum, the absence of US voices in the New Directions volume was not by design. We initially had 24 contributors to the “After Science and Religion Project”— including a number of Americans—so there were three edited collections that came out of the project, the other two being After Science and Religion, edited by Peter Harrison and John Milbank (Cambridge University Press, 2022), and Astonishment and Science, edited by Paul Tyson (Cascade, 2023). There are five internationally reputed contributors from the USA in these other two volumes (David Hart, DC Schindler, etc.). Rev. Dr Robert Brennan kindly reviewed the Cambridge volume for CPOSAT last year, but if anyone wishes to review the Astonishment and Science volume as well, then CPOSAT readers will have a full view of the project outputs in the edited collections. The monograph of the project is A Christian Theology of Science by Paul Tyson, which is the subject of a special review feature by the journal Modern Theology later this year, with extensive review essays by John Betz, Peter Harrison, Michael Hanby, John Perry, and Simon Oliver.

Paul Tyson