What is a Theology of Science, and why do we need one?

Professor Tom McLeish, FRS

One of the great things about ECLAS is the way that the project works on so many levels and looks at science and the Christian Church from so many different perspectives. These include our conferences for Christian leaders, Scientists in Congregations awards programme, support for seminaries and ordination colleges helping students come to grips with science, and research and policy work. Ideally (and mostly it works), these should all reinforce each other.

Right at the roots of what we and others are doing to equip the Church in this area, there needs to be a fundamental understanding of how all this fits together theologically.

This is really foundational.

If we don’t understand the reasons for God’s gift to humanity of the ability to do science – if we can’t explain how the story of science fits into the bigger story of creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and new creation – then we risk going badly wrong. The answers to these questions are what we mean when we talk about a Theology of Science (ToS). Theology of Science can also be framed as the purpose of the gift of science within the Kingdom of God.

It is worth noting that this is quite different from, and much larger than, the ‘apologetic’ work of explaining why it is compatible to hold science and Christian faith together. The two are clearly related, but that specific, and more defensive, question has until recently been the focus of more effort and writing than the ‘big picture’ task of developing a ToS.


After ‘Science and Religion’

Fortunately, there is an increasing body of work underpinning ECLAS, and our sister projects, in this way. My fellow ECLAS investigator David Wilkinson and I have both been involved in a parallel project, funded by the Templeton World Charities Foundation, called After Science and Religion. I am one of four Principal Investigators, the others being historian Peter Harrison from the University of Queensland, his theologian colleague Paul Tyson, and theologian John Milbank of the University of Nottingham. Other participants include Janet Soskice (Cambridge), Simone Kotva (Stockholm), David Bentley Hart (Notre Dame), Bernard Lightman (Montreal) , Rowan Williams (Cambridge) and David Schindler (Washington).

Why did we call it ‘After science and religion’? Well, this alludes again to a desire to do things a new way, to drop the adversarial tone of a discussion between ‘science and religion’ and to move towards a new way of thinking about what science is, for humanity as a whole – in terms of theology but in a wider sphere as well. It also hints at the move to bring ToS into more mainstream theology (the project certainly attracted some mainstream theologians!).

Now completed, the After Science and Religion project has produced two rather fresh books of collected essays, both very recently published:

The cover of two books 'After science and religion' and 'New directions in theology and science'

After Science and Religion – the book – seeks to bring fresh theological perspectives to bear on the ways we think about science publicly. The scientistic notion that only scientific knowledge is meaningful, and that nature is totally ‘disenchanted’, needs more than simple rebuttal. There are exciting ideas, not to go back simply to a pre-modern era, but to move forward to an understanding that is more contemplative, more shared and participative, more respectful of what we do not and cannot know in regard to nature – a sense of the ‘apophatic’. I have a chapter in this book looking at which ingredients from medieval theologies of science might inform a new ToS.

The other book, New Directions in Theology and Science, is more applied in nature. David has a chapter on pop science and pop theology. We co-wrote another chapter which aims to correct a dearth of literature within the ToS field: that of Biblical exposition. It brings one of David’s central studies (Colossians chapter 1) into conversation with one of mine (Job chapters 38-42), to draw out how humans made in the image of God can, through science, reflect in an ‘imaged way’ the work of God in Creation, and how mapping that onto the care we take of this creation then becomes a form of worship.

There is much more besides to discover in these two volumes, and those in turn are just a toe-hold into the work to come, which is to explore and define a Theology of Science that energizes the Church into action for God’s world.



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