Whenever theology touches science, it gets burned

Really, what a preposterous glib hope, his of extracting God from the statistics of high-energy physics and Big Bang cosmology. Whenever theology touches science, it gets burned.

– Roger Lambert, professor of theology in Roger’s Version by John Updike, pp. 32


I’ll apologize now–Roger’s Version is going to come up a lot on this site as I work through my study on it, Karl Barth’s theology, and the writings of the ante-Nicene heretics. But this text is rich with theological questions, many I won’t get a chance to address in my final paper.

I listened to an NPR podcast recently which recorded an hour-long debate between Christian and atheist scientists on the question, “Does science refute God?” I knew from the get-go that the atheists would win–they always do. Science and theology don’t mix well. Christianity is the one that always “gets burned,” I think, agreeing with Roger.

Sure enough, the atheists “won” that debate, gaining more “converts” by the end of the hour.

It’s been my opinion for a while now that those debates shouldn’t even happen–especially when it’s scientists against your average Christian who hasn’t studied science. What the debate becomes is not a debate at all. Both parties are arguing something different. It’s messy, and almost always unfruitful.

For a while I tried to not even think about science, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the messiness. I didn’t want those debates to persist in my own head. I didn’t want to find myself siding with those clueless Christians or the godless atheists. But with a science-loving boyfriend, that became difficult. Instead, I began looking for where God and science could meet.

A few weeks ago I read an article in The Christian Century recently about the “Cosmic Question”–where’s God in cosmology? I appreciated the author’s firm separation between science and theology. In short, science doesn’t refute the existence of God; but theology doesn’t try to describe how the physical world works:

We shouldn’t try to squeeze God into the gaps in scientific explanations. Some try to preserve a role for God in this way, thinking that unless we keep God involved in at least part of the day-to-day business of the natural world, we’ll wind up with deism. The god of deism may start things off, but then just sits back and watches the world go according to the natural laws.

But there is only a slight difference between the god of deism and a god who watches the world go most of the time but every once in a while steps in and tinkers with the natural systems a bit to make them work right and then goes back to sitting and watching during the parts of the processes we do understand. And as science progresses and explains more of the gaps, there will be ever more sitting and watching by such a god.

In that sense, science has exposed a flaw in our theology. We’ve been seduced by our lack of understanding into thinking that God is the sort of creator who designed natural systems that were incapable of being described consistently in natural terms. We’ve thought that God’s interaction with the world has to do with filling in causal gaps that appear in the normal operation of those systems. (This is to say nothing of positing moments of miraculous intervention.) We should allow the success of science to correct this understanding of God. God’s interaction with and sustaining of all creation must operate at a different level than the forces of nature.

We should consider God’s relationship to creation to be more like that of a personal agent, rather than a force of nature. Then we can talk about God’s actions in personal terms like “willing” or “governing” or even “loving,” and we don’t need to worry that a new scientific discovery will prove this wrong. -J.B. Stump, Dec. 18, 2012

Roger’s argument is extreme, a position I’m not ready to take. He believes you cannot see God in science at all–not in nature or biology.

I think God is there, not to be extracted as Roger fears, but to be known. We see God in nature. We see God in the stars, in those giant orbs of gas light years away.

You seem to think that God obligingly is going to rush into any vacuum, any cap of knowledge. … You’re tying God to human ignorance; in my opinion … He’s been tied to that too long. (p. 80)

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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