Correlating theology and science

In this series we're looking at what Thomas F. Torrance (TFT) has to say in The Christian Frame of Mind concerning the integration of science and theology in light of the Incarnation of the Word of God. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 5.

[Revised 9/24/2016]


Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Last time we explored TFT's theologically- and scientifically-reasoned understanding that the order in the universe is contingent order, meaning that its "ground of being" lies outside itself. In this post we'll see how that concept has (in both theology and science) displaced the idea of a universe possessing non-contingent order---the viewpoint that dominated much of theology and science in the modern era.

The ascending viewpoint of contingent order

The concept of the universe possessing contingent order and thus being open and dynamic has been emerging in the natural sciences and in theology since at least the time of Einstein. In science the evidence bolstering this viewpoint came largely through breakthroughs in quantum physics. As the concept of contingent order ascended, it displaced the concept of non-contingent order and related concepts that gave shape to theology and science in the modern era. which began with the Enlightenment in the Middle Ages and lasted well into the 20th century (with vestiges still remaining in the post-modern era of today).

The descending viewpoint of non-contingent order

Ironically, in the modern era, theology and science (formerly united, with theology seen as "the queen of sciences"), pulled apart, even though in modernity they shared a commitment to the ideas (and ideals) of a non-contingent, closed, static and mechanistic universe. The impacts of that commitment were significant in both fields: Theology in modernity conceived of God as "outside" a closed and thus self-contained universe. From this perspective God is seen as aloof---a deistic deity who got the universe up and running then stepped aside. Science (in part following theology as modernity emerged) conceived of the universe as a closed, mechanistic and static one. With no need for a ground-of-being outside the closed system of the universe, science stopped looking, and generally repudiated those who did.

Outmoded mythologies fading away

In our still-emerging and morphing post-modern era, developments/discoveries in science, along with those in theology, have led to the emergence (one might say the "re-emergence") of the concept that the universe, which is dynamic and open, possesses contingent order. That concept is gradually overthrowing the concepts (what TFT refers to as the "mythologies") of modernity that see the universe as static, closed and mechanistic, delimited by non-contingent order (what TFT refers to as "inertial order "). TFT explains:
The theological and metaphysical concept of inertia... was taken up and built into the fabric of western classical science by Galileo, Descartes and Newton, when inertia, used as a kind of mathematical 'x' from which to make calculations about bodies in motion became mythologized into a kind of force. There is no doubt that inertia played a very important role in the remarkable elaboration of a coherent and consistent 'system of the word' within the static parameters of Euclidean geometry, which was very successful within its own limits. The end-result, however, was the damaging idea of the closed mechanistic universe, by which not only theology but all our western culture became seriously infected. The concept of inertia is still proving very difficult to dislodge, in spite of the work of Clerk Maxwell and Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg, but this is due, in part at least, I believe, to the fact that the cultural framework of thought, within which scientific inquire and theory operate and are expressed, has been profoundly shaped by it. In this way inertia has itself acquired a hidden inertial force, in virtue of which it continues to obstruct the kind of open-textured scientific thinking required at the frontiers of knowledge. In face of this, Christian theology can only cry mea culpa [meaning, "my fault"], mea maxima culpa, for it was largely through its influence that modern classical science took this unfortunate path. (p. 25, emphasis added).
As TFT goes on to note, new developments in the natural sciences (quantum physics in particular) are requiring that we ask some new (and for some, quite troubling) questions:
Is there a range of reality that does not lie within the realm of what we call nature? Why is it that the rate of the expansion of the universe and the tight-knitted nuclear structure of matter seem to indicate that the physical laws which we have to formulate under the pressure of nature's inherent modes of order are so staggeringly improbable? Must we not now think of the order characterizing nature at all levels as radically contingent and as pointing to a rationality that extends indefinitely beyond it? Does the order of the created universe not depend after all upon a divine Creator and his will and order for the universe and its open-ended development? (p. 26)

Correlating theology and science

John Polkinghorne
TFT quotes physicist and Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne, who notes how the recognition of an open, contingent and intelligible universe provides new opportunity for the correlation of theology and science:
Behind the intelligibility of the universe, its openness to the investigation of science, there lies the fact of the Word of God. The Word is God's agent in creation, impressing his rationality upon the world. That same Word is also the light of men, giving us thereby access to the rationality that is in the world" (p. 26)
As TFT goes on to note, the point of connection between theology and science is the interrelation between "the kind of order that is disclosed through the Incarnation of the Word... and that which nature discloses to our scientific inquiries" (p. 26). Rightly understood, both the book of revelation (the written word of God) and the book of nature (which discloses the creative action of the living Word of God) speak of an intelligible, contingent universe.

In conforming their thinking to the reality of a universe that is both intelligible and contingent, science and theology have a basis to speak to one another concerning "the compelling claims of [that] reality... the order of how things actually are... [the] order that impregnates nature and pervades the whole universe." As TFT notes, that order for theologians "is correlated with the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ" (p. 26).

May we all, (theologians and scientists included), hear him speak!

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To read more from TFT on the concept of contingent order, see his book, Divine and Contingent Order.

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