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Bridging science and theology

Paths from Science towards God: The End of all our Exploring
Author: Arthur Peacocke

ARTHUR PEACOCKE, who won the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, is a physical biochemist and Anglican priest who pioneered in DNA research and has since become a leading advocate of the creative interaction of theology and science.

The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion is awarded annually to a living individual who has shown originality in advancing ideas and institutions that deepen the world’s understanding of God and of spiritual life and service.

One of the judges of the Templeton Prize noted that Peacocke had created a new understanding of the relationship between theology and science “which has brought about an increase in our understanding of God in the contemporary world … generating a new theology for a scientific age”.

In this latest book, Peacocke considered the task of relating at the intellectual level of the distinctive explorations of science and of theology, the intellectual basis of religious beliefs. Instead of warfare between science and religion there is an increasing recognition of the “symbiotic role in the human quest for both intelligibility and meaning”. All religions are being challenged by the discoveries of science and the worldview that it has projected.

However, the science and theology dialogue has been dominated by what he calls the “bridge model”. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco connects the solid rock of the lands to the north and south, so the interaction of science and theology is seen as building such a bridge between two solid established disciplines. Across-the-bridge dialogue has to occur.

It has to be noted too that for most people they have to change vehicles half way across as “reason” was left behind and the claims of “revealed faith” took over in going from science to religion and the reverse route from theology to science was soon rendered impassable, from the point of view of the scientists at least, by certain historical interventions of the church in purely scientific matters. Soon this bridge-building proved to be hazardous to the religious faith and the attempt has often been abandoned altogether. For although the foundations on the science side of the gulf seemed solid rock enough, to the modern mind, that on the side of theology was regarded as but shifting sand, having little solid rational basis.

Peacocke is convinced that “theology is a pursuit that can be engaged in with intellectual honesty and integrity”. Christianity has nearly always based its beliefs on authorities of the form “The Bible says”, “The Church says”, “The Fathers said”, “The Creeds say”, “The Magisterium says”, even, at least in the past, “Theologians say”! Educated people know that such authoritarian claims are “circular and cannot be justified because they cannot meet the demand for validation of their claims from any external universally accepted stance”. In such a situation dialogue and interaction comes to a halt.


“Let us return to that bridge hopefully spanning the gulf between science and theology. It now seems that the science side is certainly not quicksand but much more like the lava flow from a volcano which inexorably moves forward in a fluid manner (often purgative of preconceptions) but leaves behind an increasingly solid base of established knowledge about the natural world. Science challenges other humanist disciplines, including theology, to live up to its epistemological standards in relation to the data and intellectual histories relevant to them.”

The approach is through what Peacocke calls “inference to the best explanation”, IBE for short. It is to accept the best proposals — that is, the one “which would, if true, provide the best of the competing explanations of the data we can generate”.

Many educated people do not find Christian theology reasonable which is the modern standard of the intellectual community. Do we dare to use the criteria of reasonableness? Theology has to be critical and truthful in interpreting the realities of life in the world. It must take into account the realities of the world discovered by the sciences and communal inheritance of claimed divine revelations. We need to deploy IBE in the dialogue between the scientific understanding of the world and the theological quest for meaning.

Peacocke has argued for a more dynamic view of God’s continuous action in the processes of the natural, including human, world – the action of a God who is indeed Transcendent, Incarnate and Immanent. We can regard “God as continuously creating, as the eternal Creator, for God continues to give existence to processes that are inherently creative and producing new forms”. The future is evolving and is open and new every morning.

In the midst of evil resulting in pain and suffering in the world we believe that God suffers with us. More and more in our experience we can confess the God who suffers is still our God who is intimately related to us and who loves and cares for us. The world around us is evolving to reduce natural evil. Free-will human beings are trying to overcome moral evil. God allows evil and suffers its consequences with us. Through it all God’s purpose is to bring about the greater good of “free-willing, loving persons in communion with God and with each other”.

The transition to such a theology is actually unavoidable if Christians are not to degenerate in the next millennium into an esoteric and irrelevant society internally communing with itself and thereby failing to transmit and proclaim the “good news” to the world. We need a theology that is related to the worldview shaped by the sciences. Absolute truth is humanly unattainable but we can acquire sufficient truth honestly to live meaningfully and with integrity.

Peacocke wrote in his epilogue: “To conclude, I want to indicate why I am full of hope, in spite of the gargantuan task facing Christian theology as it enters its third millennium, to transmute a global theology. This hope is based on the perennial character of God’s creative engagement with the world.”

This is a profound piece of theological work that can make a tremendous impact and difference upon our lives. As an established and recognised theologian-cum-scientist, Peacocke is able to bridge science and religion. The dialogue that he himself has sustained across the years has come to fruition and he is sharing his insights and discoveries in order that we may gain meaning and understanding in our complicated life in the world today.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.