On the Theological Importance of the Science-Religion Debate

– Tom Uytterhoeven –

It’s a strange thing to do theology: your business is to make as intelligible as possible what people, who share the same religion as you do, actually believe when they express their faith in spoken or written words, rituals, visual arts or any other form of culture. This means a theologian is part of the religion he or she studies (i.e.: Christian tradition in my case). A good sense for and knowledge of the tradition under study is therefore indispensable. But not only a sound knowledge of Christianity is needed. Christian faith is always lived faith, set in a particular time and place. Grasping the Zeitgeist is predicament for understanding lived faith. This is not to say that context determines content (of faith). There’s an intimate and nuanced intertwining, a continuous feed-back relation between general cultural context and a religious tradition like Christianity. To put it in theological language: at the foundation of this relation and appearing through our understanding of it, lies the continuous revelation of God, Gods continuous engagement with Creation. One of the difficulties theology faces when addressing questions about context, is choosing the philosophical approach(es) that offer the strongest analytical tools for the particular context under study. Moreover: which philosophical approach(es) can offer the best perspective to take both immanent and transcendent aspects of reality into account? For this may be the most peculiar character of theology: the presupposition that transcendence is indeed an aspect of reality, that the material world is not enough – bad James Bond movie titles make good theological slogans – that there is more meaning than just the brute fact of existing, but that this meaning can be discovered in immanent reality. Doing theology means not only minding the gap between immanence and transcendence, it also means bridging that gap.
In our current context the study of immanent reality has made enormous progress, thanks to the natural sciences. Strangely enough, this is is far from integrated in the way we do theology today. Or course there is a lively field of religion-science studies. But in my view, this is not regarded as main-stream theology. Most theological courses include forms of dialogue with what is broadly casted as ‘continental philosophy‘. This may be due to the fact that this kind of philosophy seems easier in giving room to transcendence, taking e.g. symbolic meaning of a cultural element as a starting point for further reflection. When other philosophical approaches, like positivism, take symbolic meaning to be nonsense, the choice of theology to stay clear from these philosophies seems self-evident. But I wonder whether this choice only has benefits. Doesn’t theology risk to take ‘like’ to (get to) know ‘like’, thereby only confirming – give or take a few nuances here, some refinements there – what is already the majority interpretation of Christian faith? Do we take sufficient stock of what science has to say about immanent reality? Do we take up the challenge this knowledge of immanent reality sometimes poses for Christian faith?
If we talk about metaphysics and theology, which kind of metaphysics (maybe even: which kind of theology) are we talking about? I would argue for a metaphysics that takes science as its starting point. Not only does this fits our current context best, living as we do in a society dominated by scientific and/or technological reference frames, but it offers in my view the best possibilities – in the form of fundamental challenges – to interrupt too much taken for granted assumptions, too rock too comfortable positions and thus to give us a fresh take on the relation between immanence and transcendence, new eyes to see and new ears to hear divine revelation in our world. Learning about dissipative structures, the role of natural selection in human culture, or the cognitive systems related to religious beliefs, is from a theological perspective as important as studying Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.

2 thoughts on “On the Theological Importance of the Science-Religion Debate

    1. Thanks for your reaction! An interesting piece you wrote, indeed! I have two points of disagreement, one major point of agreement with it.
      Where I disagree with you is (a) the reduction of ‘reason’ to ‘scientific rationality’ – following , and (b) the reduction of religion to its epistemological goals. I’ll expand a little on the latter objection, since I notice that the same error – at least in my view – has been made by quite a few authors on religion/science.
      The point is that if religion would be about the study of the natural world – including the study of those natural processes that form human culture, shape human sociality – it would of course be made obsolete by the sciences. But I think religion/theology (there’s more to be said about the relation between these two, but I’ll leave that aside for now) are not about that. Reading Genesis does not give you information about the natural processes that shaped the universe, it helps you to situate yourself as a human being in that universe. In other words: where science delivers us with ‘brute facts’ – as far as that concept goes – religion delivers us with ‘operative clues’: reference points that help us make decisions on how to act, based on the facts. I’m not saying religion is the only cultural system that can help us to do this, or Christianity is the only religion that can do this: there’s a lot to say about pluralism!
      The point where I do agree with you, is that religion can not and should not claim to be above human reason. Allow me to take a theological perspective here: divine revelation is always filtered through human senses (people see/hear/feel divine presence), human understanding (people come up with interpretations of what they see, hear, feel), and human culture (people cast their interpretations in the cultural format of their time, of the tradition in which they live). So there should always be a caveat made about religious statements: “Mind the gap between divine revelation and human proclamation!” That’s why there are forms of critical assessment at work in theology, comparable with what you can see happening in philosophy, and science.

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