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Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions

(C) 2000 Robert J. Russell

In her 1996 Presidential Address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, Elizabeth A. Johnson called for a re-engagement with the sciences which will “shift the axis of all theological questions, setting an agenda for years to come.” According to Johnson, “What is needed now, I am convinced, is a return to cosmology, in order to restore fullness of vision and get theology back on the track from which it fell off a few hundred years ago.”Elizabeth A. Johnson, "Presidential Address: Turn to the Heavens and the Earth," CTSA Proceedings 51 (1996): 8, 5, italics added.

This essay seeks to provide a short survey of the rapidly growing and truly interdisciplinary fieldOne can question whether the term "field" is appropriate for what is, arguably, a relation of "interdisciplinarity" between two established and quite distinct, even separate, fields,...of “theology and science,” a field which represents just such a ‘return’. Its immediate historical roots lie in the 1960s, where major movements in the secular fields of philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, as well as in the natural sciences (particularly cosmology, physics, evolutionary and molecular biology) as well as complex shifts in the Christian theological landscape (including the waning of neo-Orthodoxy and Vatican II) came together to make possible the ‘new era’ of constructive dialogue and interaction between what often were (and unfortunately are too often still seen as) either quite separate or even hostile fields and communities.

The essay is structured in layers, which represent both historical and conceptual developments, overlays, and interactions. Part I) presents an overview of methodology: how are we to relate theology and science? This includes Sections on A), typologies (‘ways of relating science and religion’); B) critical realism (the original ‘bridge’ between science and religion); C) further developments in methodology; D) arguments against reductionism; E) ontological implications; F) metaphysical options system vs. specific philosophical issues; and G) summary.

Part 2) is an overview of developments and current issues in Christian theology and natural science. This includes Sections on A) God and nature, focusing on ‘time and eternity’ and ‘divine action’; B) creation and cosmology; C) creation and evolution; D) theological anthropology and evolution; and E) redemption and eschatology in relation to evolution and cosmology, including christology, theodicy and eschatology. This material takes us up to the present and points towards future horizons of research within these areas per se.

Part 3) introduces new voices into the field which challenge and critique many of the underlying assumptions and perspectives of the preceding material. Though roots of these challenges and critiques can be found in earlier work, these voices bring also introduce a striking departure from them. Part 3) includes A), feminist critiques of science and of theology and science; B) post-modern challenges to science and to theology and science; C ) inter-religious dialogue, world spiritualities, and science; D) history of science and religion and E) theological and philosophical implications for science. Wherever appropriate, each Section includes a “science minisummary” that highlights key concepts in the relevant scientific topics and provides references to further reading in the Endnotes. I also include an Appendix on teaching resources and programs in science and religion.

As will all writings, I bring the perspectives, limitations and distortions of my own experience and history.I am ordained in the United Church of Christ; my family roots were Roman Catholic on my Italian father’s side and Episcopalian on my Swedish/English mother’s side. I have graduate degrees in...I have chosen to focus this short essay in several ways; this inevitably leaves out many other foci that should be included in a longer treatment. First, following the usual treatments in the field, it is focused formally on “theology and science” rather than the much broader topic of “science and religion”, though I use the terms somewhat interchangeably as is commonly done in these discussions.I take theology to be the critical analysis of the cognitive content of a living religion whose sources include sacred text, tradition, worship, practice, and personal experience in the context of religious,...Thus the primary concerns here are with theoretical, philosophical, and foundational issues and not with ethical issues related broadly to the environment/ecology, technology, and human need, nor with issues dealing with spirituality and nature.A clear example of this division is reflected in the way Ian Barbour developed his two series of Gifford Lectures, although he also makes very clear connections between the results of the first series...Clearly there will already be some significant overlap here, and much more intense overlap and interaction is needed in the future. Secondly it is focused almost entirely on Christian theology. “Theology and science”, in principle, can, should, and to a certain extent, is being addressed by scholars in every living religion. De facto, however, most of the material in the field to date has been developed primarily within the diversity of Christian theologies. There are theological reasons for this, such as the particular way Christian theology engages the natural world as God’s creation, humans as both created in God’s image and sinful, and redemption...I will touch on the growing discussions of science in other religions and in ongoing inter-religious dialogue in Part 3 (below). It should also be recognized that, while the material is focused on theological issues with its obvious set of confessional premises, the ‘equal footing’ given to ‘natural science’ and ‘theology’ in most of the material represents by its very nature what is often called “interdisciplinarity.” Moreover, the explicitly theological dimension presupposes and implicitly includes the underlying resources drawn from non-theological, fully secular disciplines, primarily those of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion, making this literature entirely accessible to either a college/university ‘religious studies’ or a seminary/divinity school curriculum. A growing number of ‘textbooks’, programs, journals and websites are available for use in these diverse settings (See the Appendix).

It is fitting to commence this essay with these words from John Paul II:

“The church and the scientific community will inevitably interact; their options do not include isolation...Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish...We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.”Pope John Paul II, "The Church and the Scientific Communities: A Common Quest for Understanding," in John Paul II on Science and Religion: Reflections on the New View from Rome, ed. Robert J....

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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