Religion can’t afford to ignore science

Published January 1, 1999

The church needs a reconstructed theology to get its message across in this age of “startling new scientific insights and their provocative technological implications,” a U.S. theologian says.

Past theologies were constructed and expressed in the “thought-forms of their time,” and ethics were always defined by the technical possibilities of those times, says Rev. Ronald Cole-Turner, associate professor of theology and ethics at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminar.

The task of today’s theologians, he said, is to do what theologians of previous centuries did – to reconstruct theology so it articulates anew the core beliefs of the church and expounds the “Gospel for our time.”

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`This separation of science and religion does not exist. There are Christians who are scientists and there are non-scientists who are atheists. It’s not science that does that.’

Tony Whitehead

McGill University

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Mr. Cole-Turner says those outside the church, especially young people, see the world through science. And those outsiders, “citizens of the contemporary, secular, scientific culture, are perplexed at a church that ignores science and technology, that ignores their world, and yet thinks it has something to say to them.

Mr. Cole-Turner, a United Church of Christ minister with a keen interest in the relationship between science and technology and the church, is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s first advisory board on science and religion.

He was interviewed by the Journal following last year’s third annual Templeton summer workshop at the University of Toronto on the design of academic courses on science and religion, at which he was a keynote speaker.

All too often, he said, “we in the church” think and act as if there were two worlds: one where God, church, soul, morality and immortality have their part, but which is wholly beyond the scope of scientific research, and another where God and soul and morality are utterly absent.

“There is but one world,” Mr. Cole-Turner said. “If God and soul and spirituality and moral obligation have any place at all, if they mean anything at all, they will have their place and meaning in this one world which our God has created: the same world explored by science and altered by technology.”

In an age in which both our thinking and our acting are “pervasively conditioned by science and by technology,” there is no question more urgent than that of “our humanity and the prospect of its technological alteration.”

It is a question that asks “not merely what we are but what we should become, and what means, spiritual or technological, we should use in remaking ourselves.” It brings theology and science, the “two great enterprises of the human spirit,” together in a truly multi-faceted dialogue in which theology “listens and reconstructs itself in the light of what it hears but in which theology also responds with informed convictions.”

Tony Whitehead, who teaches chemistry at McGill University, was one of about 115 people who attended the Templeton workshop. He said he has no problem with being a Christian and a scientist.

Accepting the “reality of an existence beyond myself,” he believes that “God is in control of the universe, in control of the world, and that He will use us as He sees fit at a time He has to do that.”

Mr. Whitehead dismisses the notion that, because of a perceived gulf between religion and science, there can be no cross-over or meeting of minds.

“This separation of science and religion does not exist,” he said. “There are Christians who are scientists and there are non-scientists who are atheists. It’s not science that does that.”

However, he does find it much easier to talk religion to his students than to talk science to the congregation of the Anglican church he attends in Montreal.

“I find people quite resistant to the science because they think it is attacking their religious belief.”

Science and religion programs, financed by multi-millionaire and mutual funds manager John Templeton, are designed to give religion a hearing in a secular environment.

Thaddeus Trenn, scientist, Christian and Canadian director of the Templeton science and religion course program, is aware that mixing science and religion does not sit well with some scientists.

“There are a lot of misconceptions out there,” he said, referring to criticisms that the program is a proselytizing tool for a particular brand of Christianity. But he says the program aims to be as inclusive as possible and welcomes participation from all quarters, Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious. It is, he said, a forum for interaction where science and religion can at least sit down and talk.

Michael McAteer is a Toronto freelance writer.


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