Shepherding science and theology

by John E. Phelan, Jr.

Every year North Park Theological Seminary holds a symposium on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Scholars come from all over the world for three intense days of hearing papers, engaging with colleagues and students, and anticipating that final great meal at Tre Kronor Restaurant! This year’s subject is “Theology and Science,” easily one of the most vexed pairings possible. North Park has historically been a place where “faith and learning” are supposed to meet. But, as one wag once put it, at North Park faith and learning sometimes meet, sometimes collide head on, and sometimes pass like ships in the night. This is unfortunately often true of faith and science in the Seminary classroom. The symposium this year is a small step to remedying this situation!

As a part of the symposium students may sign up for a class. Most of the class sessions are the papers and discussions. The students are also assigned additional readings and papers. A North Park professor is chosen to shepherd this class, and this year it happens to be me. I am no scientist. In fact, my science education in Nashville’s public schools was, shall we say, pathetic. In college I had one really good science course — a physics course with a superb teacher who convinced me all physicists are mystics. That course alone was enough to make it clear that by failing to seriously attend to my science education I was missing something profound and important.

A couple of years ago I was able to attend an excellent seminar on theology and science at the Faraday Institute at Cambridge University. Over the course of a week I was introduced to biblical scholars and theologians who were well versed in science as well as Scripture and theology. I met scientists who were theologically sophisticated. Most were from the United Kingdom and Europe but a number were from the United States. The folks from Europe and UK do not have quite the problem we do with fundamentalist obscurantism regarding science. I found the week exciting, refreshing, and, at times, bewildering. I also came away convinced that some of the biggest questions we face today as Christians are scientific ones — and not the ones we immediately think of. The creation question is significant, but for me far down the list from questions now being raised by neuroscience and biology. Christians who fail to engage these questions fail not only to engage our world, they fail to fully engage God.

I want to take a quick look at three books I have found particularly useful getting ready for my class.

The first is entitled “The Story of Western Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory” by Susan Wise Bauer. Bauer is a prolific writer of popular books on history, science, and contemporary thought. This book is not so much a history of science as it is a history of writing about science. She explores what the great western intellects have produced about science or what came to be science. She describes the contents and significance of their works and, perhaps most importantly, tells the reader where they might access these seminal works. Often they can be found free online or in an inexpensive paperback format. Bauer also assesses the readability and accuracy of the various translations that are available. If you are interested in any of the great topics of western science Bauer is a good guide to the key elements, significant works and ongoing discussion.

Tom McLeish, the author of “Faith and Wisdom in Science” is Professor of Physics at Durham University in the UK. He is a deeply committed Christian as well as renowned scientist. McLeish argues that too often Christians begin (and even end) their discussions of faith and science with an examination of Genesis 1 through 3. Once the question of divine origins is dealt with, they seem to think the Bible has little else to say about what we call science. McLeish argues that this misses the extraordinary

significance of the created order in the wisdom literature. It is part of wisdom, McLeish argues to explore, observe, and raise questions about the world created by God. Wisdom is found, in fact, in being able to ask and answer the right questions about the world. Foolishness is found in the failure to understand the world as God created it — this is at least part of the message of Proverbs.

McLeish argues that among the earliest Christian witnesses are people who recognized the importance of “scientific” wisdom or “natural theology.” Whether it was the “scientific” discussion of Gregory of Nyssa with his dying sister Macrina, or the Venerable Bede’s book “De Natura,” his “encyclopaedic coverage of natural phenomena,” or the Bishop Robert Grosseteste’s observations on the nature of light, early Christians showed themselves capable of making acute “scientific” observations. McLeish argues that this came naturally to people schooled in the Scriptures and particularly in the wisdom tradition. For McLeish the story of Job is the most profound engagement of natural wisdom. Throughout the book Job raises questions about the nature of the world that his self-satisfied friends are either unable or unwilling to answer. In the end God comes to Job with a flurry of questions. Wisdom, God insists, comes from engaging these questions: questions of origin; questions of the nature of the animate and inanimate world. For both the scientist and the believer, McLeish insists, such questions endure. The scientific quest is at the same time a quest for wisdom.

The final book is “After Nature” by the brilliant young polymath and lawyer Jedediah Purdy. Purdy accepts the notion that we are now in a new era — what some scientists are calling the “Anthropocene.” This is the era in which human beings are having the greatest impact on the world, reshaping it profoundly for better and for worse. Purdy takes the reader on a journey through the cultural, social and political history of the United States showing how the Europeans’ entry to the North American continent began to remake its environment. He is particularly astute at describing the cultural attitudes that enabled and accompanied the expansion west. Although not religious, Purdy insists that increasingly these are moral questions as well as political questions. The question of who gets a voice in the development of the society should not simply be a matter of who gets to vote or who has the most ready cash!

The key question for Purdy is how we now engage the vexed question of global climate change. He argues that both our “settler” politics and our “environmental” politics are seriously flawed in the face of this new challenge. He excoriates both settler insouciance and environmentalist misanthropy. We need, he argues, a new politics, a new democracy. He calls for a “democracy of self-restraint,” a democracy less beholden to money, and a democracy that values the individual human being without enabling every human whim.

Given the current state of our politics and our discussion of climate change, Purdy’s democratic dreams may seem impossible. Purdy understands this: “Climate change is the exemplary permanent crisis for an age of many permanent crises. Responding to it with despair because it induces many forms of failure is exactly wrong. Answering the failures it induces by trying to learn from, live with, and improve upon our panoply of failures is the only right response available to us.” There is a great deal of wisdom in this approach to all our failures whether they are scientific, political, cultural or ecclesiastical.

John E. Phelan, Jr. is Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary where he previously served as President and Dean for 14 years.

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