Science in Christian Perspective



Professor of Christian Dogmatics 
Edinburgh University, England

From: JASA 31 (June 1979): 102-105.

"The objective of the Templeton Foundation Prize is to stimulate the knowledge and love of God on the port of mankind everywhere ... there has been a long departure, at least in Western culture, from the last synthesis when religious knowledge and scientific knowledge were organically related . . . . The Templeton Foundation Prize serves to stimulate this quest for deeper understanding and pioneering breakthrough in religions knowledge by calling attention annually to the achievements that are being made in this area." (From "The Objectives," Program for the Sixth Presentation of The Templeton Foundation Prize far Progress in Religion at Guildhall, London, March 21, 1978.)
The donor of the Templeton prize is John M. Templeton, a member of the ASA since 1975, a graduate of Yale in economics and of Oxford in law. He holds honorary degrees from Beaver College and Wilson College. An elder in the United Presbyterian Church, Dr. Templeton lives in Nassau, Bahamas.
The Templeton Prize for 1978 was awarded to Professor Thomas F. Torrance, Professor of Christian Dogmatics at Edinburgh University. Professor Torrance is the author of Theological Science; Space, Time and Incarnation; and Gad and Rationality, all published by Oxford University Press; Evrdmans published a collection of his works in Space, Time and Resurrection. In August 1979, the University of Virginia Press in Charlottesville, Virginia 22903, will publish The Ground and Grammar of Theology. On October 16, 1978, Professor Torrance spoke at Princeton Theological Seminary on "Christian Theology in the Context of Scientific Revolution" and at a Forum sponsored by the American Scientific Affiliation and Oxford University Press.
In order to acquaint the readers of the journal ASA with Professor Torrance, we reprint here his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize.

Your Grace, Dr. and Mrs. Templeton, Eminent Judges of The Templeton Foundation, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, I stand before you greatly honoured and humbled by the judgment which makes me the recipient this year of The Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion. No one engaged in thinking out the interrelations of theological science and natural science could be more encouraged than I am by this international recognition of what I have been trying to do, although I know that my work falls short of what it ought to be. But the award in the area of human inquiry into the relation of the creation to the Creator focuses the spotlight on the point where before the astonishing nature of the universe as it is revealed in scientific inquiry I am overwhelmed with awe and wonder of a profoundly religious kind in which my prime thought is of praise and glory to God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.

When I look at the sky, which you have made, at the moan and the stars, which you set in their places
what is man, that you think of him; 
mere man, that you care for him (Psalm 8:3, 4)

How often those words from the ancient Psalm of Israel have echoed in our thoughts as the incomprehensible immensity of the universe began to be disclosed to the inquiries of our astronomers! Vast as our solar system is, the sun is only one star among the 100 thousand million stars that make up our own galaxy which we call The Milky Way. The Milky Way is so immense that light travelling at the rate of approximately 186,000 miles a second would take 100,000 years to pass from one end of it to the other. But the Milky Way is only one galaxy among at least 100 million similar systems of stars far beyond it. But what is also staggering is that this universe comprising all these galaxies, is expanding at the rate of more than 160,000 miles a second. What is man, mere man, in the face of this incomprehensible immensity, that God should think of him and care for him?

And now, as if in answer to that question, our astronomers have come tip with something which to me is even more breath-taking in its implications: the narrow margin of possibility which all this allows for the rise of intelligent life anywhere in the universe. I refer here to the F. W. Angel Memorial Lecture delivered by Sir Bernard Lovell in Newfoundland in October 1977, in which he asked: Why is the universe expanding so near the critical rate to prevent its collapse? If the universe had begun to expand in the first few minutes after the explosion of its original incredibly dense state by a rate slower than it did by a minor difference it would have collapsed back again relatively quickly. But if the expansion of the universe had been different only by a tiny fraction one way or the other from its actual rate human existence would evidently have been impossible. 'But our mearureineuts', Sir Bernard declared, 'narrowly define one such universe which had to be that particular universe if it was ever to he known and comprehended by an intelligent being.'

All this seems to say two things. First, this vast universe is the kind of universe it is because it is necessary for the existence of man: somehow man and the universe are profoundly bracketed together. Many years ago when Einstein first formulated the theory of general relativity Hermaon Weyl pointed out that since all things, bodies in motion and space and time, are ultimately defined by reference to light, light occupies a unique metaphysical place in the universe. But now even from the way that astrophysical science is developing it appears that man occupies a unique metaphysical place in the universe. It is in this direction that science was pointed by Professor John Archibald Wheeler of Princeton in a lecture he gave in 1973 in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus, which he entitled 'The Universe as Home for Man', And it is much the same theme which Sir John Eccles has taken up recently in his Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh.

Secondly, the fact that the universe has expanded in such a way that the emergence of conscious mind in it is an essential property of the universe, must surely mean that we cannot give an adequate account of the universe in its astonishing structure and harmony without taking conscious mind into account, that it, without including conscious mind as an essential factor in our scientific equations. That is a point that Schrodinger made as long ago as 1958 in his Cambridge lectures on 'Mind and Matter', and which Sir John Eccles took up in his work 'Facing Reality' in 1970. If this is the case, as I believe it is, then natural science is on the verge of opening itself out towards higher levels of reality in a movement of wonder and awe in which our increasing awareness of the limitations of science-the theme of Sir Bernard Lovell's Presidential lecture to the British Association for the Advance of Science in 1974-is matched by our awareness that as we probe into the intrinsic order of the universe we are in touch with a depth of intelligibility which reaches indefinitely beyond what our finite minds can comprehend. I cannot but recall here those sentences of Einstein in which he spoke of 'that humble attitude of mind towards the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths is inaccessible to man' (Out of My Later Years, p. 33), and of 'the rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection' (The World as I See it. p.28).

To all this theological science presents a complementary account, for this universe of space and time explored by natural science, far from being alien, is the universe in which God has planted us. He created the universe and endowed man with gifts of mind and understanding to investigate and interpret it. Just as he made life to reproduce itself, so he has made the universe with man as an essential constituent of it, in such a way that it can bring forth and articulate knowledge of itself. Our scientific knowledge of the universe as it unfolds its secrets to our human inquiries is itself part of the expanding universe. Regarded in this light the pursuit of natural science is one of the ways in which man, the child of God, pursues his distinctive function in the creation. That is how, for example, Francis Bacon at the outset of our modern scientific era understood the work of human science as a form of man's obedience to God. Science properly pursued in this way is a religious duty. Man as scientist can be spoken of as the priest of creation whose office it is to interpret the books of nature written by the finger of God, to unravel the universe in its marvellous patterns and symmetries, and to bring it all into orderly articulation in such a way that it fulfils its proper end as the vast theatre of glory in which the Creator is worshipped and hymned and praised by his creatures. Without man nature is dumb, but it is man's part to give it word, to be its mouth through which the whole universe gives voice to the glory and majesty of the living God.

Space and Time

This is the universe of space and time through which God has also revealed himself personally to man in historical dialogue with the human race, which has involved the establishment of communities of reciprocity in which his Word is intelligibly mediated to us and knowledge of God becomes communicable through Holy Scriptures. But since all this takes place within the created universe of space and time, and space and time are the bearers of all rational order within the universe, it is in and through this universe as its orderly connections are unfolded under man's scientific investigations that we are surely to develop and express our knowledge of God mediated through his Word. The natural scientist and the theologian are both at work within the same space-time structures of the universe and under the limits of their boundary conditions. The natural scientist inquires into the processes and patterns of nature, and man himself is a part of nature; and the theologian inquires of God the Creator of na
ture and the source of its created rationalities, to which man also belongs. Thus theological science and natural science have their own proper and distinctive objectives to pursue, but their work inevitably overlaps, for both respect and operate through the same rational structures of space and time, while each develops special modes of investigation, rationality and verification in accordance with the nature and the direction of its distinctive field. But since each is the kind of thing it is as a human inquiry because of the profound correlation between human knowing and the space-time structures of the creation, each is in its depth akin to the other.

Regarded in this way natural science and theological science are not opponents but partners before God, in a service of God in which each may learn from the other how better to pursue its own distinctive function, how better to be natural science or how better to be theological science. This is a relationship which is not onesided but mutual, for natural science has actually learned far more from theological science than is generally realised. In a lecture I gave last July in New York to the International Institute of Theoretic Sciences I showed how three of the most basic ideas of modern natural science, which have come very much to the front since general relativity, go back to definite roots, and indeed derive from Christian sources in Alexandria as Greek theologians from the fourth to the sixth century thought out the relation between the Incarnation and the Creation and reconstructed the foundations of ancient science and culture. But let me give you today a different example, taken from James Clerk Maxwell, whose death a hundred years ago we commemorate this year. The distinctive idea which he used in developing his celebrated field theory which has had such a powerful impact on modern science, not least upon the thought of Einstein, Clerk Maxwell gained as a student in Edinburgh University not so much from his classes in physics but from Sir William Hamilton's lectures in metaphysics, an idea which had a theological as well as a philosophical root. It is crossfertilisation of this kind which is to be found behind some of the most outstanding advances in human knowledge. But the great day for creative integration between apparently separate or opposing disciplines such as natural science and theological science, lies not behind us but ahead of us. This kind of dialogue and exchange in thought is now possible in a new and exciting way because of far-reaching change that has been going on in the foundations of knowledge in which both science and theology have been sharing in different ways.

Since it is this deepening co-ordination in understanding between natural science and theological science that I have tried to serve, and which the Templeton Foundation has so handsomely recognised, it may be of interest if I indicate briefly how I regard this change in scientific activity which makes such co-ordination possible.

Fundamental Principle

The fundamental principle that I have been concerned with is a very simple one, but its implications are deep and far-reaching when worked out consistently over the whole range of human knowledge. We know things in accordance with their natures, or what they are in themselves; and so we let the nature of what we know determine for us the content and form of our knowledge. This is what happens in our ordinary everyday experiences and knowledge, when, for example, we treat trees in accordance with their nature as trees and not as rocks, or treat cows in accordance with their nature as cows and not as horses, or treat human beings in accordance with their nature as persons and not as things. Science in every field of our human experience is only the rigorous extension of that basic way of thinking and behaving. This is a way of understanding scientific activity which is much more appropriate to the complexity and richness of nature as it becomes disclosed to us through the great advances of the special sciences, than that to which we became accustomed within the compass of a mechanistic universe and its rigid instrumentalism. This is particularly evident in the field of biology where advance has been obstructed through reduction of organismic relations into mechanistic concepts. Nature must be respected and courted, not imposed upon. We must let it develop and flower, as it were, under our investigations if we are really to know something in accordance with what it is in itself, and not simply along the lines of its artificial reaction to our tormenting distortion of it. Science is not, therefore, something to be set against our ordinary and natural experience in the world, but on the contrary a development and a refinement of it, with a deeper penetration into the natural coherence and patterns already embedded in the real world and already governing our normal behaviour day by day.

All this applies as much in our relations with God as in our relations with nature or with one another. There is no secret way of knowing either in science or in theology, but only one basic way of knowing which naturally develops different modes of rationality in natural science and in theological science because the nature of what we seek to know in each is differentand that is a difference which we are rationally and scientifically obliged to respect. Thus it would be unscientific to transfer from one field to another the distinctive mode of rationality that develops within it. Just as it would be irrational to try to know a person by subjecting his physical existence to chemical analysis or to treat a chemical substance as though it were a human being and try to talk to it and listen to it, so it would be irrational to look for God through a telescope or treat him like a natural process, as irrational as it would be to use God as a stopgap in the formation of some hypothesis to explain a set of physical connections in nature. In each field of inquiry, then, we must he faithful to what we seek to know, and act and think always in a relation of relentless fidelity to it. This is why we cannot oppose natural science and theological science as though they could or had to contradict one another, but rather regard them as applying the one basic way of knowing faithfully to their respective fields and seek to coordinate the knowledge they yield through the appropriate modes of inquiry and thought they develop.


In recent years the increasing fidelity of science to the nature of things has resulted in a number of changes which are proving to be highly significant for the unification of knowledge in overcoming the split between the natural and the human sciences and between both and theological science. Let me refer to four of these changes.

1. Science has been leaving behind its abstractive character, in which through a predominantly ohservationalist approach it tended to tear the surface pattern of things away from its objective ground in reality, as though we could have no knowledge of things in themselves or in their internal relations but only in their appearances to us. That abstractive method involved the damaging bifurcation in nature with which the deep splits in our modern culture are associated. But now all that is being cut back, as in sheer faithfulness to things as they actually are in themselves science is concerned to understand the surface patterns of things in the light of the natural coherences in which they are actually embedded, and therefore operates with the indissoluble unity of form and being, or of theoretical and empirical elements in human knowledge. Here we have a reconciling force in the depths of scientific knowledge which cannot help but heal the breaches that have opened out in our culture. This is a reconciliation in which theological science can not only share but to which it can make a creative contribution.

2. The great era of merely analytical science is now coming to an end, for the new science, if I can call it that, starting from a unitary approach operates with an integration of form which transcends the limits of analytical methods and their disintegrating effects. Atomistic thinking is replaced by relational thinkingnowhere is that more true than in the development of high energy physics and particle theory, in which many of the so-called particles are not discrete particles but energy knots in the fields of force between the stronger particles. Here we have a model of onto-relational thinking with which Christian theology has long been familiar, out of which, for example, there came the concept of the person. But let us look at the change in another way. Merely analytical science has had great difficulty in coping with the problem of how to think together being an event or the geometrical and the dynamic aspects of nature, such as the particle and the field in light theory or position and momentum in quantum theory together. Although Einstein failed to develop a unified field theory which would transcend the divergent corpuscular and undulatory theories of light, he insisted that any real description of nature in its internal relations must involve the unity of the particle and the field, as indeed Faraday had already indicated in the last century. As I understand it this is the stage which high energy physics has now reached. But in Christian theology this stage had already been reached by Karl Barth 40 years ago when with herculean effort he brought together the ancient emphasis upon the being of God in his acts and the modern emphasis upon the acts of God in his being, and thus integrated in a remarkable way the whole history of Christian thought. It is integrative thinking of this kind, whether in natural or in theological science, that is bound to have the greatest effect in the future upon all our human knowledge.

3. One of the most startling developments in recent science is the success with which scientists like Katsir and Prigogine have wrestled with the problem of how to relate the so-called random elements in nature to the laws of thermodynamics which as classically formulated hold only within closed systems. Katsir tragically lost his life in the Lods airport massacre a few years ago, but Prigogine has recently been given the Nobel prize for work in which he has applied the laws of thermodynamics to open or non-equilibrium systems. It is difficult to grasp all that this means, but what does seem clear to me is that the old way of thinking in terms of the couplets chance and necessity, uncertainty and determinism must now be replaced by a new way of thinking in terms of spontaneity and open-structured order, for what is revealed to us is an astonishing spontaneity in nature which yields a dynamic kind of order with an indefinite range of intelligibility which cries out for completion beyond the universe to our natural scientific inquiries. Theologically speaking, what we are concerned with here is an understanding of the spontaneity and freedom of the created universe as grounded in the unlimited spontaneity and freedom of God the Creator. Here natural science and theological science bear closely upon one another at their boundary conditions, and what is needed is a more adequate doctrine of creation in which knowledge from both sides of those boundary conditions can be co-ordinated.

4. Science has been moving away from a flat understanding of nature to one that is characterised by a hierarchy of levels or dimensions. Science of this kind is concerned to discover the relations between things and events at different levels of complexity. It has the double task of penetrating into a new kind of connection and of lifting up the mind to a new level where we can apprehend and bring that new kind of connection to appropriate formulation. The universe is not flat but is a stratified structure, so that our science takes the form of an ascending hierarchy of relations of thought which are open upward in a deeper and deeper dimension of depth but which cannot be flattened downward by being reduced to connections all on the same level. The old-fashioned science that tried to reduce everything to hard causal connections in a rigidly mechanistic universe damaged the advance of knowledge in all the higher levels with which we are concerned in our culture, but that is now going and the new science gives ample room for the human sciences and the sciences of the spirit, and all sciences concerned with living connections, within the framework of an open-structured, dynamic universe in which the human person is not suffocated but can breathe freely transcendent air, and yet be profoundly concerned with scientific understanding of the whole complex of connections that make up our universe. No one has pioneered this way of heuristic thinking in science more than Michael Polanyi whose thought reveals an unrivalled subtlety and delicacy in showing how the different levels of human understanding are coordinated in such a semantic focus that meaning is brought back to our world with new force and direction, for here instead of fragmenting in disintegrating specializations the whole enterprise of science recovers in depth and breadth an uplifting unitary outlook that begins to match the character of the universe itself, and indeed the relation of the universe to God its transcendent Creator and Sustainer.

It is more and more clear to me that, under the providence of God, owing to these changes in the very foundations of knowledge in which natural and theological science alike have been sharing, the damaging cultural splits between the sciences and the humanities and between both and theology are in process of being overcome, the destructive and divisive forces too long rampant in world-wide human life and thought are being undermined, and that a massive new synthesis will emerge in which man, humbled and awed by the mysterious intelligibility of the universe which reaches far beyond his powers, will leans to fulfil his destined role as the servant of divine love and the priest of creation.