Theology and Science: Five Key Topics

(This is Neil) I’m constantly (and inescapably) behind in my posting and I should admit that I’ve been planning a post on theology and science for some time. The following is indebted to a very useful article by Robert John Russell, a physicist and theologian, which appeared in Dialog in 2007. Russell identifies “five key topics on the frontier of theology and science today.” I trust that we can take it to be an overview of the field of theology and science.

The first “key topic” has to do with physical cosmology and creation theology. The Christian doctrine that God created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) “represents an amalgam of philosophical and theological claims,” Russell tells us. God is the primary cause of a universe that is rational, since it was created through Christ, the divine logos. The universe is also good, purposeful, and will be transformed into a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). Some theologians, most prominently Wolfhart Pannenberg, have claimed that this doctrine of creation ex nihilo is actually supported by the Big Bang model’s positing of an absolute beginning to the universe. Other scholars, such as John Polkinghorne, have claimed that cosmology is irrelevant to theology.

Russell suggests that we look for middle ground, or “consonance.” The concept of contingency, he says, can serve as a “philosophical connection or substratum” that underlies both creation theology, which represents the universe as absolutely dependent upon God, and Big Bang cosmology, which certainly describes the universe and the laws of nature as contingent. Cosmology and theology, then, are not bound together in an absolute way, but indirectly. Given the historical relativity of scientific theories, looking for anything more than this middle ground would be unwise.

Russell notes that, in the 1980s, scientists drawing on quantum mechanics began to posit an inflationary Big Bang model that suggested that our universe might have emerged out of an initial universe or even a “superspace” of universes. There is no “initial singularity,” and Russell says that we need no longer discuss the theological significance of an “absolute beginning event” (t=0).  The inflationary model can also explain the fine-tuning of our universe, now merely one of many regions in a very large universe. But, here, Russell imagines that theological discussion can still take place. For, even if God created a “superspace” universe before our universe, biological life, including life capable of responding to God’s revelation, can still be conceived as the “result of God’s creating the universe” in a very particular way.

The second “key topic” is the relationship between evolution and creation theology. Russell writes, “Evolution is a form of divine creative action in the natural world, adding creation continua to creation ex nihilo.” It is important that the theologian asserts the importance of “God’s continuous creative activity,” because arguments that God created “back at the beginning” fail if there is no initial singularity.

The third “key topic” is “non-interventionist objectivity divine action,” or NIODA.  This is an alternative to two common, albeit unfortunate, theological views. One, a more conservative view, suggests that God upholds the world in existence and occasionally suspends or violates natural laws in performing miracles. The other, the more liberal view, suggests that God’s action is “just a linguistic redescription of what nature does entirely through its own God-given processes and secondary causes.” NIODA, Russell says, is an attempt to find “ontological indeterminism”: “that there are some events, in some domains, levels, or kinds of processes in nature which lack a sufficient efficient natural cause.” One could claim that God objectively acts here. We need not rely on either interventionism or subjectivism.

Warning us again about the dangers of looking for more than “consonance” between scientific theories and theological doctrine, Russell points to indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics as theologically significant. Since the physics of quantum mechanics determines the making and breaking of hydrogen bonds in the DNA macromolecule – which in turn determines genetic mutations, we can possibly conceive of God acting through genetic processes without momentarily suspending natural laws.

The fourth “key topic” is suffering in nature, or, more precisely, “our response to the challenge that natural evil poses to the goodness and power of God as life’s continuous creation.” Russell doesn’t want to adopt any view that sets God’s freedom against human freedom, as though these two types of freedom were competitive over a “fixed pie.” Instead of suggesting that God withdraws his power and presence from nature for the sake of creaturely freedom in a sort of kenosis, Russell suggests that we follow a theologia crucis “in which God in Christ identifies with, takes up and heals the suffering of the evolutionary history of life.” Instead of thinking about theodicy in terms of creation, we should “relocate” it to the question of redemption.

The fifth “key topic” has to do with the future of the universe. All of the Big Bang models suggest that the universe will either expand and cool before reaching an absolute zero temperature or collapse into an inferno. Eventually, then, the universe will become completely inhospitable to life. How do we reconcile such a future with the promise of a “new heaven and a new earth”? Russell writes that we do not have to argue that the Big Bang models are somehow incorrect. We can suggest that Jesus’ Resurrection was something new and a foretaste (a “proleptic instance,” to use Wolfhart Pannenberg’s term) of the eschatological future, when God will act once more to transform nature into new forms of regularity. This will not be a second act of creation ex nihilo, but a transformation out of the old, ex vetera. Russell writes that, in this view, “Easter was the first instantiation of what will one day be the new laws of nature.”

Robert John Russell’s article is arguing for “creative mutual interaction” between science and theology. This might sound like wishful thinking, but he briefly describes a couple of projects. He seems to suggest that theology can inspire or encourage certain research programs, ranging from support for indeterminism in quantum mechanics to making the theological assumptions of the benign nature of potential extraterrestrial life explicit to developing a “new philosophy of time in which the past is multiply connected to the eschatological future.”

What do you think? (Not being an expert of any sort on this subject, I would be grateful for your comments.)

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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