Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)

I wanted to continue with chapter 2 of Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology: Nature
today. Chapter 2 is entitled “The Approach to be Adopted” and is about, well, the approach McGrath is adopting in this series of works. He makes three big points that I’ll share.

1. He will focus on the timeless aspects of theology and science, not the time-bound.

He says that,

The specific form of scientific theology which this project advocates is based on the affirmation of the intellectual resilience of traditional credal Christian orthodoxy, whose fundamental ideas are stated in the classic creeds of Christianity, and defended as living experienced realities by the great traditions of Christian theology – Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and evangelicalism.

He does this for two reasons – first, because he believes credal Christianity to be authentic Christianity, as determined by the consensus of communities of faith over time. Second, alternative theologies tend to be transient, tied to specific historical developments, and soon pass away.

He offers the specific example of “process theology” as a transient theology which was, unfortunately, used to attempt to illuminate how science and Christianity interact. Process theology affirmed “‘a God of persuasion rather than compulsion’ who ‘influences the world without determining it’.” Thus God might influence the evolutionary process, but not direct it – explaining apparent evolutionary dead-ends, for example. McGrath and many (most?) others have found process theology unconvincing. He says, for example, that,

the vague language about God’s ‘persuasive moral influence’ over natural processes is stretched far beyond credibility when dealing with non-sentient entities. Its use of the language of ‘persuasion’ often appears to be little more than a lapse into unwarranted anthropomorphic modes of speech, which singularly lacks plausability when applied at the molecular and sub-molecular levels.

This same concern to avoid the transient and focus on the timeless means that where science is concerned, he will focus (mainly) on the methods of science, not the results. After all, as he points out, it seems that almost every generation of scientists has felt that some (or even all) aspects of science were well-settled and finished, only to see them soon overturned or surpassed (he offers Newton’s corpuscular theory of light as one example).

“What now seems quaint and hopelessly outmoded was then seen as thoroughly up to date.”

2. He will focus on the relationship between science and Christianity, not science and religion.

One of the defects in trying to discuss the relationship between science and religion is that no one has ever come up with a good, precise, definition of “religion”.

Discussions of the complex interaction of science and religion are often rendered problematic through the false assumption that the word ‘religion’ designates a universal phenomenon or category. While there is no doubt that the word is used in a vague sense in everyday English, attempts to offer a more precise definition have crumbled in the face of innumerable difficulties.

He then goes on to specifically cite important divergences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – three religions that are probably relatively similar compared to many others practiced on our planet. Islam, he says, “tends to reject any notion of a ‘natural knowledge of God'”, because that would challenged the place of the Qu’ran. Judaism “sees creation in terms of the impression of the Torah… upon the created order”. Christianity, meanwhile, has always had a very Christological doctrine of creation (it was Christ “through whom all things were made”.)

3. Science has stimulated theological reflection before – for better or worse.

I found this part of the chapter especially interesting. McGrath says that John Henry Newman expressed the idea that challenges to existing ways of thinking within the Church can be good for the Church because they “act as a catalyst for the church to explore the revelation entrusted to it, and reconsider whether it has indeed fully understood it or properly expressed it.” He also gives the example of Augustine, who felt that when the proper interpretation of a Bible passage was unknown, it was perfectly appropriate to use established facts from other fields of inquiry (like science) in order to teach us what the proper interpretation should be.

Those two ideas probably both make scientists happy – although perhaps they also open up a can of worms. It is reasonable to say that we can use settled scientific facts to help us resolve unclear Bible passages – and then begin the fights about which facts are “settled” and which pasages are “unclear”!

But anyway, McGrath then cites the conflicts the Church had with both Copernicus and Galileo as evidence that the Church sometimes clings too tightly to old, bad, science or philosophy. I thought it especially interesting that McGrath sees the “Galileo Affair” not as a conflict between science and Christianity so much as it was a conflict between “modern” science and Aristotelian “science”, the latter of which had become too integral to the Church. It was Aristotle that taught that the heavens were immutable, not the Bible, so why was the Church condemning people for going against this idea? (McGrath also points out that the behavior of institutions of the Church should not be equated with Christian theology, and also that Galileo’s personal relationships with ecclesiastical figures was quite significant in shaping official attitudes toward him.)


The natural sciences thus offer an important resource to Christian theology, in that they invite the church continually to reconsider its present interpretations of Scripture, in order to ensure that the settled scientific assumptions of earlier generations – now known or suspected to be incorrect – have not inadvertently been incorporated into the teachings of the church.

C’est tout – thus ends all the prefatory sections of the book. Chapter 3 begins a more specific study on the notion of “nature”.

Previous Posts in this series

Chapter 1 – Science as the ancilla theologiae
Preface – Blogging Through “A Scientific Theology”

5 thoughts on “Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)

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