When building bridges between science and theology, it is especially important to lay solid foundations in the bedrock of each. For example, I have read more than one attempt to reconcile ecofeminist theology and a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics. I think Sallie McFague has made important contributions to theology, and I enjoy reading the philosophical reflections of Heisenberg (and Bohr and Einstein) on how we should view uncertainty. At the same time, I know that these represent the edges of their relative fields. The very value they bring is the value of striving to expand boundaries.
I do not believe that science and theology discussions represent that kind of boundary pushing. For me, the most important questions involve looking at the confirmed and orthodox positions of each and looking at how they link up, or perhaps how they don’t. I want to be careful, though, not to lose the terribly important gifts each brings. In this particular case, I think that biology and Christian theology both use the concept of life to help us understand the world. That means I have to be very careful to let each one have its say, before trying to get them to agree.
Too often in discussions of science and religion, we try to force the dialogue too early. We interrupt the process of rigorous reasoning before it comes to fruition. For example, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and others have tried to tie together eschatology and evolution by adjusting the concept of evolution at the outset. They made of evolution a progressive, goal-oriented process so that it could match up with God’s plan for the universe. It’s an interesting proposal; unfortunately, evolutionary theory moved away from this kind of progressive thinking. Teilhard’s evolutionary Christianity requires us to stop scientific refinements of evolution in the early 20th century. Evolutionary theory suffers. Imagine if we required our theology and cosmology to rest on 16th century astronomy (Earth-centered) instead of allowing Copernicus and Galileo to introduce a new model… Actually, we tried that, and it didn’t turn out so well.
On the other hand, consider modern questions of free will and agency. Numerous authors on all sides of the question would force us to answer the question of philosophical determinism (Are our actions fully determined by physical causes?) before starting the ethical debate. Despite some amazing progress in this question in physics, neurology, and psychology, we cannot deny the immense contributions of Christian ethics to questions of human rights and social contracts. 17th and 18th century insights into communal behavior may not fit into 21st century science. Forcing the question into modern scientific language takes away their usefulness. Liberty and equality mean something even though I cannot rigorously define “personhood” in modern biological terms.
The rule of thumb is to ask what people are tying to accomplish. Evolutionary biologists want to find a natural explanation for the diversity and function of organisms. Inserting intentions (design, teleology…) stops them from doing that work, because intentions are considered inconsistent with modern biology. And modern biology is doing some very cool things.
But this also means we must ask and articulate what Christian theology does for us. Our theology uses life as a way of understanding God’s presence in the world (the breath of life); the intrinsic value of animals, including humans, who have God’s spirit (and Spirit) in us; and the goal of faith (to bring abundant life).
For me, the question is not “Who is right?” but “Can all of us get something out of common understanding while each of us continue to get what we need?” There are, of course, deeper questions. Once a connection has been made, that connection can be refined. First, though we need to establish communication. We need to see whether the central tenets of our science and theology are compatible. If they are not then we will have to make a choice, but let it be a choice founded on the mature products of each and not a stunted science that was never fully tried, or a stunted theology that was dismissed for not conforming to our expectations. Just as the Golden Gate Bridge rests on two well-founded towers, so a good interaction between science and religion will require each tower to be built before they are linked together.
I will be trying to discover and articulate the function of definitions of life in both biology and theology first, before looking to integrate the two. The discussions of naturalism here and in my other blog, attempt to form some guidelines for how that might be done.