Science in Christian Persperctive



W. Jim Neidhardt
Physics Department
New Jersey Institute of Technology

From: JASA 38 (June 1986): 122-123

As Professor Nebelsick indicates, Einstein stressed that all further theory, doctrine or dogma comes about as a result of reflecting upon experience in the light of one's physical intuition and basic intellectual convictions. From such theoretical reflection the scientist and the theologian make a jump of imaginative insight, a "wildly" speculative and bold leap in postulating a logically- not-obvious new theoretical structure. The validity of this new theory or doctrine is then tested by using it to deduce specific theoretical propositions capable of being tested against experience. Thus one is brought back to the realm of experience. In this ongoing' cyclical methodology originating from and terminating in the realm of experience, new theoretical structure emerges as a free creation of the human mind. Upon successful testing against experience, such theory, doctrine or dogma reveals a hidden, possibly deformed intelligibility that undergirds the realm of confusing and often seemingly contradictory human experience. The discovery of such hidden intelligibility is the principle motivation and final goal of all science: natural, social and theological. Such intelligibility-shared among human observers conceptually, rather than as a matter of sensibility or pictorability is the cornerstone of a realistic objectivity in today's quantum-oriented world. The shared character of the awareness of any particular "reality" guarantees objectivity; for even though different observers do not have the same sensory experience of the "reality" in question, through their diverse sensory experiences they are able to acquire a shared or common understanding of it. This shared, possibly deformed, intelligibility is the linchpin upon which to build cooperation between scientists and theologians. As the distinguished particle physicist and Anglican curate, J. C. Polkinghorne, puts it:

If it is true, as I think it is, that intelligibility is the ground on which fundamental science ultimately makes its claim to be dealing with the way the world is, then it gives science a strong comradeship with theology, which is engaged in the similar, if more difficult, search for an understanding of God's ways with men.1

The search for intelligibility that Einstein's theorydirected model of the scientific enterprise describes, agrees well with how creative science and theology actually has been done. Einstein's own pioneering work in creating special and general relativity was motivated by the theoretical ideal that mathematical laws truly representing physical reality must retain their form under the widest possible coordinate transformations, i.e., general covariance. Bohr's development of the principle of complementarity was guided by the insight that quantum phenomena occurring at the atomic level are always observed with classical, macroscopic measuring instruments with the associated physical concepts being deeply and tacitly immersed in the language texture of macroscopic, everyday human experience: i.e., particles and waves. Similarly, at critical stages in the growth of the Christian church, creative theologians have benefited from theoretical insight as they reflected upon the depth of human experience, including God's concrete actions in human history documented in the Old and New Testaments, One example will suffice. The church Fathers at the Council of Nicea. found concepts borrowed from Greek philosophy, in particular the term homoousios (consubstantial-of one being, substance), to be extremely helpful in formulating a creedal statement that would do full justice to the ample Biblical evidence for the profound unity of God and man in Jesus Christ: the God-Man (and by being so providentially guided they may have preserved the church). As Thomas F. Torrance puts it:

The homoousion, then ... is of staggering significance, It crystalizes the conviction that while the incarnation falls within the structure of our spatio-temporal humanity in this world, it also falls within the Life and Being of God. Jesus Christ is thus not a mere symbol, some representation of God detached from God, but God in his own Being and Act come among us, expressing in our human form the Word which he is eternally in himself, so that in our relations with Jesus Christ we have to go directly with the ultimate Reality of God. As the epitomized expression of that fact, the homoousion is the ontological and epistemological linchpin of Christian theology. With it, everything hangs together; without it, everything ultimately falls apart.2

Thus scientific and theological history testify to the soundness of Professor Nebelsick's perspective on the integrative interplay of theory and experience in science and theology. Figure 1, based upon Professor Nebelsick's thought,3 is an attempt to represent this perspective visually.

The last theological example reinforces another of Professor Nebelsick's themes, the usefulness (and perhaps necessity) of complementarity theory in both science and theology. The thirty-three years of Jesus Christ's earthly life constituted a very unique space-time event. It is recorded that Jesus miraculously altered the usual patterns of nature; that he told people their sins were fully forgiven; and finally, that he rose from the dead appearing to his disciples with a body that passed through matter. Yet, during this same life, he worked as a carpenter; he wept in anguish; be became physically fatigued; and finally, he suffered much physically upon the Cross. It is very difficult to conceive of Jesus fully forgiving sins in an), human context, only God is capable of such action; conversely, it is very difficult to conceive of God becoming tired; tiredness is clearly a human attribute. Both God-like and human-like attributes are required to adequately comprehend the unique reality of Jesus Christ's space-time life. Furthermore, the appropriate categories, "fully God" and "fully Man," are clearly embedded in mutually exclusive language contexts. Thus we see that although the categories needed to describe this unique space-time event are logically mutually exclusive both are mutually necessary to the totality of Jesus Christ's earthly life: hence the validity of a complementarity interpretation in this case. I would suggest that the finite, limited nature of all language structures, embedded in ordinary human experience, may

Figure 1. All Creative Science is an integration of praxis and theory. With respect to theological science, even a cursory reading of Karl Barth's monumental Church Dogmatics reveals Barth's deep concern that systematic theology and the everyday concerns of church people always be intimately interrelated. Following Michael Polanyi, integration is defined as "the natural unification of the constituent parts of a complex entity into a comprehensive whole, which is not replaced by an explicit integration or logical ordering of its analytically dismembered parts. Integration has to do with the spontaneous organization of natural coherences embedded in nature, which we grasp or understand only through non-analytical acts of knowledge such as indwelling. In this way we accomplish mentally, in bringing subsidiaries to bear upon a focus, what living beings do physically. Integrative knowing is a unifying mode of thought in which we seek to grasp something by penetrating its inner intelligible relations and wholeness without distorting fragmentation of it.7

require a complementarity paradigm in order to adequately "come-to-grips" with the holistic, genuinely paradoxical complexity that one confronts in probing the deeper levels of reality. However, as John W. Haas, Jr. points out,4 one should carefully evaluate the appropriateness of the complementarity approach to each particular problem area in theology (and in science). As suggested by Gunther Howe, two further theological areas where complementarity theory may apply are the emphasis on love and justice in Barth's exploration of time as belonging to finite creation and Einstein's concept of the finite universe.5

Lastly, Professor Nebelsick points out that dialogue between scientists and theologians can lead to beneficial
mutual clarification and further understanding with respect to both science and theology, for the two disciplines interpenetrate each other in significant ways. The spirit of this interpenetration of theology and science is strikingly captured by the Greek word, perichoresis, used by early Christian theologians as they attempted to discern and grasp the way "in which the divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ interpenetrate each other without the integrity of either being damaged by the other."6 The word indicates a sort of dynamic, mutual containing or mutual involution of realities, which is often spoken of as a coinherence (the root chorais also present in choreography, which describes the orchestration of dancers, indicating the root's dynamic aspects). Such a dynamic coinherence between theology and science would preserve the integrity of both
disciplines while healing the breach that has opened up between them. Our age is dominated by technological and scientific achievement but strongly lacks a coherent sense of overall meaning (as strikingly indicated by the American public's dualistic uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy of both astrology and the findings of satellite-based astronomy) and the necessary moral leadership to use these achievements
wisely. A deeper more clarified understanding of the perichoresis between theology and science could have a substantial healing impact upon our science-technology oriented society, for such a clarified understanding would restore the sense of purpose and moral guidance our society lacks. This understanding and subsequent healing can come about if both scientific and theological communities are willing to sacrificially commit the time and effort required for serious dialogue. Such extensive dialogue will succeed if each community trusts and respects the other's basic or core convictions while, at the same time, both communities honestly and openly articulate those areas where real divergences of understanding exist. Christian love manifesting itself in mutual tolerance and total honesty is one "leaven" that can guarantee the fruitfulness of such dialogue.


1John Polkinghorne, The Way the World Is, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1983, p. 11
2Thomas F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1980, pp. 160-161.
3Figure I is based upon this article and Harold P. Nebelsick's "Iain Paul; Science, Theology and Einstein," Scottish
Journal of Theology, Volume 37,1984, pp. 237-242.
4John W. Haas, Jr., "Complementarity and Christian Thought-An Assessment. (1) The Classical Complementarity of Niels Bohr,"
Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 35, No. 3,1983, pp, 145-151.

5Harold P. Nebelsick, Theology and Science in Mutual Modification, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981, pp. 163-164.
6Thomas F. Torrance, op, cit., p. 172.
7Thomas F. Torrance, "Notes on Terms and Concepts," in Belief in Science and in Christian Life, edited by Thomas F. Torrance, The Handsel Press, Edinburgh, 1980, p. 139.