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.