Reconciliation of science, religion

Published June 1, 2002

RUMOURS of multiple “black holes,” an “Aquatic-ape” theory, D.N.A. analysis, genetic research, “stem cell” possibilities – all are evidence of continuing exploration in scientific disciplines seeking to discover the what, why, and how of life on this planet. With the rise of Copernican cosmology in the 17th century, and continuing through Darwinism in the19th century, the claims of science have challenged the authority of Christianity for determining answers. This has resulted in an ongoing conflict between science and religion reaching into our own day with responses of hostility, attempts at reconciliation or just plain indifference. At the moment there are battles, at both intellectual and popular levels, raging in the United States and England about teaching an evolutionary or Genesis-based theory of creation in schools. It is a good time to look at the debate. Peter J. Bowler, professor of the history of science at Queen’s University, Belfast, in Reconciling Science and Religion: The debate in early twentieth century Britain, provides an informed background for understanding what is taking place today. He notes how scientists and religionists alike reacted to the hard-line materialism inherited from the l9th century and how the search for truth led to attempts to bring the two sides together. The debates flourished in the academy, the pulpit and the popular press, and within both scientific and religious communities. [pullquote]The author draws on the thinking of many whose names are as well known in Canada as in Britain including R.J. Campbell, Bishop E.W. Barnes of Birmingham, Dean W.R. Inge, Charles Raven, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. The catholic, yet modernist theologies of people like Charles Gore and William Temple are covered as are the reactions of popular writers such as Hilaire Belloc and C.S. Lewis. While both scientific and religious understandings have evolved since that period, and while in the second half of the 20th century the conflicts appeared to simmer beneath the surface due to increasing public indifference, there is no question that they are surfacing again as the popular press reveals. However, as the author claims in his introduction, “we can surely learn something of value from the debates of earlier decades – if only the futility of expecting the underlying issues ever to be resolved.” But there are those who keep trying. In Chaos Theology: A Revised Creation Theology Sjoerd L. Bonting, a biochemist of note and an Anglican scientist-theologian, says that the scientific world view gives answers to the “How?” while the theological world view provides answers to the “Why?” questions and that they should not be intermingled. He believes this happened with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, a “How?” question, and he sets out to examine the implications. He notes that this doctrine was introduced by Theophilus of Antioch (c. 185 C.E.) in his controversies with Marcion and the Gnostics. He identifies five problems with it: conceptual, biblical, scientific, theological and philosophical. He carefully argues each of them and readers will be drawn to his claim that the doctrine conflicts with both creation accounts in Genesis. It is his contention that in the beginning there was chaos and that, “God creates not by destroying chaos, but by ordering it, by pushing back chaos in three separations (Gen.1:2-10).” He understands chaos to be symbolized by “sea.” He reflects that the last vestige of chaos will be abolished on the last day: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth ? and the sea was no more (Rev. 21:1).” In light of this approach he examines our understandings of a transcendent yet immanent God, active in the world; the meaning of Jesus Christ and Incarnation; the nature of reconciliation and the redemption not only of humans but of the entire cosmos. The problem of evil is examined in detail and identified as “inherent in the remaining element of chaos.” This fascinating study, developed to harmonize with scientific advances as we come to understand them, acknowledges that God is indeed the Creator bringing order out of chaos initially and continually until all has been accomplished. As the author says, “From biblical evidence and our insight into cosmic evolution, we may conclude that Jesus is the cosmic Christ, who is in union with the entire cosmos and who will bring the entire cosmos, including humans, to completion and fulfillment on the last day.”


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