Science and faith – taking the risk of further thinking


The following reflection is based on discussions we have had on campus over the past couple of years, following on the semester’s discussion of resurrection. I am a scientific novice here. My field is the humanities, literature and systematic theology. So, I am open to challenge and correction is what I say here. I welcome your comments. This is a crucial discussion, because it takes seriously the detailed and careful work of scientific investigation – and refuses to say that this work is opposed to faith. On the contrary – it accepts that the world of science enriches our life, and deepens our understanding of the way things are.

In our discussions about science and faith it has become clear to me that many have learnt to view faith and reason, (science and theology) as opponents and polar opposites. Fortunately, we are able to re-think these learned pre-judgement. I am finding the discussion takes me into areas I have not known: into discussions of quantum physics, for example, and the paradoxes acknowledged there.

Theology is not taught on the campus of Melbourne University (although there is now cooperation between the university and, for example, the Melbourne College of Divinity.) The separation here is regarded as ‘normal’, and priority is given to ‘science’ over against theology. Some assume that faith is to be associated with unreason, bigotry and ignorance.

But it is actually an accident of history that theology is not on campus. It reflects the particular conditions in 19th century Melbourne and the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. (The longer history includes the 18th century Enlightenment, with its claims to ‘light’ over against the dark superstitions of the Middle (Dark) Ages.)

Universities began in Europe with the three classic disciplines: theology, philosophy and medicine. In Australia, the latter two have a university place, but theology (the ‘teaching of Divinity’) was relegated to the periphery – on the rim of the campus- located in the residential colleges.

Largely hidden from sight, the United Faculty of Theology (a coalition of Jesuits, Anglicans and Uniting Church) teaches a large number of theology students, some of whom are candidates for ordained ministry. Housed on College Crescent (Morrison Close) is the largest theological library in the southern hemisphere. the Dalton-McCaughey Library.

So we have inherited and learned to accept ‘binaries’ as a given. For example;
• Rational and irrational;
• Reason and faith
• Fact and interpretation
• And so on…

There is a way out of that set of oppositions.
From the side of theology, the formula is: faith seeking understanding’. That is the norm. It is also helpful to see that the reverse also holds: understanding seeking faith.

Michael Polanyi… ) is a philosopher of science who argued for the role of intuition and ‘tacit knowledge’ in the practice of science. Scientific procedure depends upon an intuition, a hypothesis, testing, correcting, and so on. Others (Ernst Troeltsch -… ) described the art of scientific procedure as requiring an act of faith, involving risk.

In our discussions we have heard how scientists do actually deal with uncertainty in their work. Differing results produce a puzzle. There is not a hard and fast world of ‘fact’ as the 19th century expected to find. Einstein, with his theory of relativity, included the observer in scientific procedure and knowing. [NOTE: Entering this area of science I am in unfamiliar territory and open to correction and instruction!]

Christian faith does not depend on what is ‘provable’. Nor does it rely on what is ‘probable’. Rather, faith is a step into a way of life, an understanding of human being. Faith is an act of ‘trust’; it takes the risk of depending on what others hand on. (cf. The Gospel according to John, chapter 20: 30-31; 21: 24-25; I Corinthians 11: 23.) The Apostle Paul describes ‘hope’ as hope in that which is not yet seen; for if we have seen the results it is not longer hope.(see Romans 4: 13-18; 5:5; 8:24)
‘For in* hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes* for what is seen?’

In faith, a person entrusts themselves to the One who creates life from nothing; that is the God who raised the crucified Jesus from the dead. Here we are in the arena of testimony; the Spirit acts to assist us in our search for life and meaning.

Our discussions about Dawkins, Galileo, Darwin (assisted by Stephen Ames – see his name and papers in the list of categories), has taken us to scientists who reject the notions of purpose and meaning.

I would say that when we start to deal with:
• Purpose
• Meaning
• Future
• Origin
• Hope
• And so on
we have stepped into the arena of faith,

When scientists declare that life is without purpose, ultimately meaningless, and so on, they have entered into the field of meaning, philosophy and theology. They may well have discovered data that assists in piecing together biological developments over millennia, and they may have the capacity to see back in time within milliseconds of the ‘Big Bang’, ot have the microscopic task of mapping the genome. When they start to tell us about the point of this knowledge they are in the realm of faith and theology, even if they are denying meaning and purpose. [There is, of course, a style of theology that says what God is not; it proceeds by way of the negative – via negativa – to ensure that we do not confuse the created world with the Creator. The task of this theology is to point out what is not God. It is called apophatic theology.] It belongs to the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-5; Deuteronomy 5: 6-8 which commands us not to make an idol of anything in the world – that is, we must not confuse God with the world, and we may not divinise the world.

One means for distinguishing the task here goes on these lines:
Science tells us ‘how’ and ‘what’ about life;
Theology tells us ‘why’, the meaning of life.

Is this an adequate way to proceed? I am not entirely happy with such a watertight distinction, because it suggests that we cannot learn about order, harmony and beauty from scientific work, and misses the possibility of being enriched by scientific work in our appreciation of life itself.

Am I correct in recalling that among the first ‘natural scientists’ (natural philosophers) were Church Ministers who investigated the world of nature as an act of glory to God?. They understood that the Creator had produced a universe of order and beauty, and by investigating it and describing it, they were giving glory to God.

Worth reading here: Jeffrey C. Pugh, Entertaining the Triune Mystery: God, Science, and the Space Between, Trinity Press International, 2003.
Also: Leslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth, Eerdmans/WCC publications, 1991; and also by Newbigin:
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Eerdmans/WCC publications, 1989.

Wes Campbell
14th May 2010


  1. Alan Wade
    Posted 18/05/2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Greetings – I admire what you are doing here and miss seeing you!
    I cannot resist responding with the observation that the writings of Bernard Lonergan invite the possibility of an intellectual conversion that radically changes one’s approach to the very important questions raised.
    The underlying issue is the relation of subjective and objective in cognition and value judgments. The common (Kantian) assumption that the mind (and the articulation of its cognitive operations) cannot directly connect with objective reality becomes, for many, a presupposition that prevents the question arising.
    I suggest that what Polanyi describes as ‘tacit’ is made explicit in Lonergan. I note you use the term ‘intuition’ when referring to Polanyi – what does it mean? Assuming it means ‘understanding’ or ‘insight’, it is precisely understanding of understanding that is Lonergan’s major concern and, of course, the relation of faith to the sciences and scholarship.
    I urge you to read Lonergan and would be happy to provide three or so papers that might whet the appetite before venturing into the deep end with “Insight”.

  2. Posted 18/05/2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Greetngs Alan, many thanks for your comments. Your question about ‘intuition’ prompts me to go to Polanyi to be accurate, but I understand he means a knowing that is pre-articulate. I’ll check that. And I’d look forward to taking up both offers – something from Lonergan, and a meeting, too.

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