The founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences offers an introspective autobiographical statement of his path to Christian faith, to physics, to theology, to teaching, and to leadership in the task of promoting dialogue between science and Christianity.
In the summer of 1981 my family and I returned home to California across the grasslands of South Dakota and Wyoming after three years of teaching in Minnesota. Our trip followed the trails that pioneers had forged over a century ago, people like my wife's great-great-grandmother, who, undaunted by the deserts and the Rockies, made it all the way to the far frontier and the Gold Coast. On that hot, dry trip I also learned about desert rivers. Unlike other rivers which get broader and deeper until they reach the welcoming ocean, desert rivers lose a slow battle with heat and sand until they finally dry up and vanish in the desert furnace. Many an inexperienced pioneer left bones behind on the gamble that the desert river would provide them the vital life-giving water for the journey West. Others made it all the way to the windy surf and glistening shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Memories of those early pioneers and the lesson of the desert river haunt me as a symbol of my life's journey. I too was returning to California to attempt something still on the frontiers of my mind: how to bring science and religion together in mutual and responsible dialogue in a culture where sacred and secular are split apart. With ever increasing intensity I brooded over the fate of those great streams of religious thought which have born and shaped Western civilization. Could they be brought once again to carry the hopes and visions of humankind and to irrigate a new vision of the cosmos that gives lasting meaning to human life? Or were these priceless traditions just another "endangered species," drying up like desert rivers in the scorching light of modern science, with its staggering claim to authority and knowledge and its stunning technological power.
Faith that God acts in history and nature, trust that God's providence sustains life and guides our destiny, hope in eternal life beyond the grave--these beliefs had once been compatible with and even flourished in our understanding of the physical and biological world. A God in whom "we live and move and have our being" made sense when the heavens wrapped around the world and humans were the center of the universe, when history had a beginning and marched towards a future of hope and fulfillment, when life was a divine gift and eternity awaited those who worked for justice and compassion.
But my generation was brought up on Apollo and the PC, Einstein and Crick, the Space Shuttle and the Jarvis heart, DNA and relativity. Can religious beliefs still make sense in a world of Star Trek--and can we survive a world of Star Wars without religion's moral insight? Given our universe filled with over a billion galaxies each with billions of stars, surely life forms are likely to have evolved elsewhere, perhaps in large numbers. What meaning of any "cosmic" significance is there then to homo sapiens and the terrestrial religions we have spawned? If life is simply a biological inevitability on a fertile planet like ours, how can we claim it as a divine gift of the Spirit? What hope do we have in times of grief, illness and terror if death is no longer a step to a better world but a recycling of our atoms and molecules into the ecosystem of a planet which is itself merely a dust mote in endless intergalactic space? We use religious language about being created in the "image of God," yet what is unique about being human? It certainly isn't our physical origins, as we know from Darwin; even our ability to reason, once heralded as the uniquely human trait, might soon be outmatched by computers. If the processes of evolution are in fact the ways God created us, should we take up those very processes through genetic engineering; or is life, even evolution, "sacred," not to be tampered with? Finally to what hope do we cling as we face the future, if ultimately the universe itself is destined either to freeze through infinite expansion or to end in a fireball of soaring temperatures as it recollapses into itself?
In our era many take for granted that science will provide a new more trustworthy basis for hope than religion. Science brings a grand vision of a universe of incredible beauty and complexity, of endlessly interconnected species of life on earth and the limitless horizons of space and the cosmic future. Yet if the empirical method is the only reliable route to truth, then even science can be the reason for an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness. With no evidence of the transcendent, many leading scientists find that nature on its own--from the carnage of the jungle to the blind whirring of subatomic particles--leaves few pegs to hang hope on. As Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg wrote in The First Three Minutes, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."
My own life "passages" echo both the bitter and the sweet moods of one immersed in science and seeking to find meaning. I want to recount to you three stages in my life which have led me to my present struggle with the meaning of Christian discipleship and the challenge of physics: stages of formation, flux, and focus.
I was born in the summer of 1946 in the sleepy San Fernando Valley of Southern California, amidst the orchards and foothills of Los Angeles. My love of nature and my yearning for science go as far back as I can remember. By the time I was eight I had announced to my parents that I wanted to be a "theoretical physicist." Although they were confused about where I'd gotten such an idea, to me it was second nature. My whole generation was caught up in science and space. We read Ray Bradbury and dreamt dreams of the red planet Mars--and beyond. Evenings I'd watch the fading sunset with Jupiter, a silver diamond set in the mauve sky so close you could reach out and touch it. The nights were filled with stars, stars, stars and the dream that someday we'd go there. I remember waiting up far past bedtime for Andromeda to rise above the dark horizon, standing in the cold winter night to search for the Great Galaxy, suddenly finding it--serene, expansive, beyond reach yet intimately present. One hundred billion stars. Life everywhere, beckoning. Knowing we humans had only just begun our long voyage to galactic community.
Alongside my passion for space there flowed a religious sensibility whose well-springs stem from my earliest memories. I have always known myself as both a sojourner of the celestial heavens and a pilgrim of an invisible Heaven. Since my family roots are both Roman Catholic, on my dad's side, and Episcopalian, through my mom, a recurring issue became that of Christian identity. For me Sunday mornings were special. At church my spirit moved with its own momentum and destiny. I was baptized Roman Catholic, but since my dad, an Italian Catholic, never went to Mass--though he believed in God in his own way--my mom took me to a nearby Episcopalian church. I felt at home in the pews, with their padded kneeling benches and the otherworldly fragrance of incense and communion wine. Watching her take communion, I felt close to the veiled mystery of God become one of us and one for us in the wine and wafers.
My question about Christian identity was always mingled with the ethnic one as well. My Catholic father was the firstborn of Italian immigrants, my Protestant mother, the youngest child in a family of Swedish immigrants. Family parties tended to be highly one or the other: lots of pasta, anchovies, Parmesan, and talk of Italy, or Swedish treats and skoals. Yet the two sides of my family rarely mixed, and I was left to search for my identity as a wayfarer between distant Nordic and Mediterranean cultures.
In these early years the themes of mediation and reconciliation began to take shape, although inarticulately and tacitly. I was beginning to learn something about sitting with each of my parents and relatives, experiencing their reality as my reality, seeing the essential rightness of their ways and perceptions, while yet moving to another person and living within their world and values, getting a feel for their integrity and authenticity. I was beginning to learn about crossing over, about finding ways to integrate contrasting perspectives, that life's meaning comes about through community and that community is based on reconciliation as well as covenant.
Soon, however, a new--and this time dark--theme burst open. Into the days of warm summers, cool evenings, star gazing with my new telescope, the joy of school and learning, my puppy dog, family and friends, came sudden death: overnight my dad died without even the chance for farewell. It was just three months after my twelfth birthday and nearing the Christmas season. In a moment my whole world changed. I was caught up in caskets and rain, being told that I was to be the man of the family, that I must now take care of my mother. Behind this, behind the morbid curiosity about death and the drowning feelings of grief and loss came an insistent, unsilenceable, rasping question propelled by a mounting anger: How could this happen? I knew how he died; he died of a sudden massive heart attack brought on by diabetes. But I wanted to know why he died, why there is death, how could it be this way, and most of all, would I ever see him again. So entered the second theme which was in so many ways to dominate and drive my life from then to this day: what is the meaning of our resurrection faith, what is it that we hope for after death, and how could God let it be this way?
I remember asking our minister if I'd see my dad in heaven. We were standing in my garage near my work bench where I was showing him the electronic kit I had just finished assembling. I felt close to the secret world of nature in that quiet garage, where science provided the only reliable guide in my upside-down life. But my minister looked at me with sad eyes and said about heaven, "We don't believe in that any more; science has changed all that." Today, so many years later, I understand what he probably meant--we've all read Bultmann, we all know that the New Testament is filled with the language of myth! But at a much deeper level I've never agreed with him, though by giving me that inane answer he probably did me a favor, planting a seed, a scream of "No!" in my soul which drives me to this day to work out a much more defensible answer, a much more resurrection-filled "Yes!"
After that we moved around a lot. I remember those years of sadness and mourning. I threw myself into school work, music, and physics. In 1964 I left high school behind and entered a new world, Stanford University.
Stanford was a time of discovery--and conflict. I arrived at Stanford with a great sense of expectation and anticipation. During those four years I studied physics day and night, yet found time to minor in music and religion. The location was unbeatable: I breathed in the moist breezes from the Pacific, climbed the surrounding hills crested with fog, drank in the almost mystical quality of Stanford's adobe brick and tile architecture, its themes of the early Spanish mission, and biked endlessly through the acres of surrounding woods. Yet when I entered Stanford I had no inkling of the intellectual challenge that was about to commence. I had graduated with the highest SAT scores in the history of my high school; yet at Stanford I barely passed the math qualifying test given to potential physics majors. Life suddenly became intensely competitive and the chances of reaching my career goal far less certain.
Still in those uncompromising years I reveled in the new understanding of nature which came with the laborious hours of study. The sheer beauty of nature compelled me relentlessly: how could nature be so subtle and yet so vulnerable to human understanding? Everywhere I felt a presence, a background hum, as I worked in the lab and at my desk, calculating, calculating.
Those were days of wonder. I remember:
Though the physics major demanded most of my time, I managed to find niches for courses in music, religion, history, and art. As I deepened my education I found new worlds opening up, vast horizons of knowledge which beckoned me to follow. I spent six exhilarating months studying music, art, and philosophy at Stanford's overseas campus in Florence, but with my last two years at Stanford increasing hours of physics shut out everything else from my studies.
Already a wedge was being driven, not only in sheer demand on my time, but in conceptual frameworks, between science and the humanities. As my immersion in the world of science increased, the theology I was raised with seemed less and less adequate. Prayer remained, and communion and student life at the Stanford Chapel. But what about my mind, being restructured by the structures of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, computers. How was I to transform my faith so that it too could grow in knowledge and understanding of a God who creates all that is, a Redeemer of flesh and blood who lived among us, who knows our human condition and who was raised from the dead, and promises a real future in which some form of consummation and fulfillment will occur for all of creation groaning in this present age?
One way to resolve the dissonance would have been to compartmentalize science and religion by restricting science to facts and religion to values, science to nature and religion to God, and leaving it at that. I know that's the route most of my friends and teachers took for granted. But I was unwilling to believe that Christian theology--whether of Paul, Augustine or Aquinas, Luther or Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, Tillich, Rahner or any of the other great Christian thinkers--has nothing vital to say about the empirical world of the natural sciences--the world in which, in at least one very profound way, we truly "live and move and have our being!" I couldn't let go of the nagging sense that there must be a deeper unity and this became a relentless, beckoning call to reconcile my two identities.
The best way ahead seemed to be graduate studies in both physics and religion. From 1968 to 1978 I studied in the seminary communities of Berkeley and the physics departments of the University of California. At the Pacific School of Religion I completed a Master's of Arts thesis in theology and the Bachelor of Divinity degree required for ordination. I also met and married Charlotte, who likewise completed her seminary work and headed into the parish ministry. At the same time I took a Master's of Science in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, while doing campus ministry. During this time I found even more clearly than at Stanford that contemporary theology has, for the most part, ignored the sciences, following the tradition of bifurcation which traces back to the Enlightenment. The work that needed to be done had hardly begun.
Next we moved to Santa Cruz where I began doctoral research in physics. There amidst the beauty of nature's redwood groves near the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean I worked two years in theoretical physics, studying gravitational theory and cosmology, and then I moved to experimental solid state physics, doing my thesis research in low temperature microwave spectroscopy.
As I moved more deeply into the community of research physics the joy of discovering nature's secrets grew ever stronger. I remember trying to sleep one night after an incredible day of discovery working alone in the lab, knowing I was the only person in the world who knew one of nature's secrets. I felt intimately tied to nature, like sharing a secret spoken in a whisper only you have heard, yet which soon you will tell to all the world and which will be confirmed in the work of others.
In those days of endless work the simple beauty of nature was ever before my eyes and I greeted her with religious awe:
The elegance of theory brought an overpowering vision of the rationality of the universe, a mystery reflecting, for me, the constancy of our Creator God:
Finally graduation came in June, 1978. I was offered a teaching position in the physics department at Carleton College. Since I could also work through the campus ministry there, I was ordained to the Christian ministry in the United Church of Christ Congregational--the same day I received my Ph.D.! So followed three rewarding years teaching courses in physics and courses in science and religion at Carleton and ministering to students who were struggling with their own college experiences.
At Carleton I began to feel the first real stirrings of dawn in my mind as I crossed back and forth between the "two cultures" of physics and faith. I began to envision a broad-based, ecumenical, inter-disciplinary forum which would bring together people from all walks of life--from the sciences, philosophy and theology, from the university, the seminary and the colleges, from the churches and synagogues, from technology and industry--in short, any and all who are concerned about faith in an age of science. The location had to include major universities and colleges, an inter-religious seminary community, corporations engaged in ground-breaking technology, a spirit of free enquiry and an appetite for new ideas. The place I picked was the San Francisco Bay Area. And so in the summer of 1981 I found myself coming home across the long Mid-Western plains.
Our project began in 1981 with the organization of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California. We are affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union, an ecumenical seminary community and graduate school in religious studies. Our program includes doctoral and seminary courses, international research conferences and public programs in theology, science, technology, and the environment. As Associate Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the GTU, I teach courses for seminary students preparing for the ministry, for clergy returning for continuing education, and for masters and doctoral students who will teach others in turn as future faculty in universities and seminaries. We sponsor the annual J.K. Russell Fellowship in Religion and Science which brings a distinguished senior scholar in science and religion to lecture and teach at the GTU.
We offer monthly public forums which deal with fundamental issues in religion and science and with ethical issues of technology, human need and the environment. We organize seminars and research conferences with international participants as well as faculty from the University of California, Berkeley and other Bay Area campuses. We work with a growing number of churches throughout the region, such as in Silicon Valley, where members come from the new computer and genetic engineering technologies and in Livermore, where the nuclear weapons issue is intensely debated.
Along with basic research and the teaching ministry, we have participated actively in conferences held in Copenhagen, Krakow, Rome, Larnaka, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Jacksonville Beach, and the Bay Area, and we are working with several denominations in setting up longer-term programs on religion and science in the church.
In turning now to some of the critical issues arising in our ongoing work, let me emphasize the scope of the problem at the very outset: I believe we stand at the brink of a new Reformation, one in which virtually all of our theology will be rethought in new terms. We must begin to make sense of our cherished traditions in terms of contemporary science if we are to enter a new period of theological discovery and vitality.
As British biochemist and Anglican theologian Arthur Peacocke has urged, "Any affirmations about God's relation to the world, any doctrine of creation, if it is not to become vacuous and sterile, must be about the relation of God to, the creation by God of, the world which the natural sciences describe. It seems to me that this is not a situation where Christian, or indeed any, theology has any choice."
The importance of a theological engagement with science is underscored by process theologian John Cobb, Jr., who writes: "In the modern world the greatest challenge to Christianity for the minds of Western people has been science and the modes of thinking which it has inspired. Insofar as the church in modern Europe has avoided being driven into a ghetto, this has been a result of its assimilation of, and transformations by, scientific wisdom. On the other hand, the church's resistance to appropriation of the universal truth offered by modern science has been a chief factor in the decline of conviction within its ranks and the weakening of its capacity to shape and guide modern thought."
Of course there are good reasons for such "resistance," for keeping science and religion separate. The methods of science, based on reason, facts, and objective testing, can seem utterly different from those of theology, based on revelation, private religious experience and subjective judgment. Yet I believe that theological doctrines can be taken as something like scientific theories, open to testing, to potential falsification and revision. I take them to have a provisional and hypothetical character much like a scientific theory, constantly subject to reformation. Perhaps the hardest question of all--what counts as theological data? I would include, along with religious experience, the covenants of religious communities, scripture, creeds, and the judgment of church councils. Yet in some less direct but irreducible way, the data of science, even more accurately the theories of science, have always been and should once again become data for theology.
What about faith? What is the role of faith in knowing? As Michael Polanyi has so carefully argued, science and theology, and indeed all systems of knowing, depend on presuppositions which transcend specific truth claims. Knowing depends on believing as well as on the object under analysis. Science is based on the faith that empirical facts are meaningful, the belief that the intelligibility of its procedures is related to the intelligibility of the world, the presupposition that the precision of its predictions and the explanatory power of its theories are evidence that through them it grasps the world with ever increasing clarity. Theology is based on a similar premise, that religious experience in all its forms is meaningful, that religious doctrines, through their moral codes and prophetic voice, are revelatory systems disclosing the world both as it is and as it ought to be in relation to its Creator/Redeemer God. In fact the historical origins of science lie in this very conviction of Western monotheism, that the intelligibility of the world reflects the rationality of its Creator, and that one must experiment with the world to find out what is true about it, since God freely creates the world and thus could have created a different one.
Theology is infused with metaphors about God's relation to the world, as Janet Soskice and Sallie McFague point out, metaphors which convey our religious experience, the "data for theology": God the potter, the Lord as my shepherd, the Spirit as giver of life. These metaphors are brought together into broader models, like the Nicene Creed or the double nature of Christ, and ultimately into fundamental theories or doctrines, like the doctrine of creation or the incarnation. Yet as Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke have argued, I believe one can best understand science, too, as structured in terms of core theories with their surrounding cadre of models and these in turn are brought up against empirical data. Hence even the structures of scientific theories can be taken as paralleled in theology. In both, testing is arduous, indirect, but the data count. Though the relative importance of subjectivity and objectivity differ in them, I believe that theology and science can be best understood in terms of their similarity than their difference. Indeed, as Nancey Murphy has repeatedly suggested, theological method within at least some theological perspectives, such as that of Wolfhart Pannenberg, could be significantly enriched by an explicit importation of the scientific method as understood by Imre Lakatos.
Hence I believe we are ready, once again, for the facts and experiences of science and of religion to become mutually shared facts and experiences, and for the world-shaping paradigms to be cross-fertilized into stronger, more truthful visions of reality.
Given this program, let me try to say something about how I now see the situation in theology and science with a focus on physics and cosmology. I should therefore start with my own central beliefs about God and open these to the discoveries and challenges of science.
I believe in a God who utterly transcends the world as its ultimate source and ground of being. I also believe that this God is present in every moment and process throughout the universe, working in and with each element of nature's unfolding history with the exquisite craft of an artist and the caring hand of a parent. God is unconditional love, experienced through friendships, parents, parenting, intimate love, and most deeply when love is most costly. I believe that in Jesus, God takes on the suffering of our world, even of the universe, without hesitation by entering into this struggle on the side of victims of injustice, disease, loneliness, war, poverty and despair. Christ bears our sorrows and, through a cruciform love, brings them ultimately to victory and joy by loving and embracing nature at every level, human and non-, by caring for every sparrow that falls, every blade of grass that thrives and withers, so that none be left out of the age of final fulfillment and the realm of divine peace. I believe in a God whose Spirit abides with us as counselor, comforter and teacher, who reveals the truth of all that we know and discover, who nourishes our soul with forgiveness, our minds with knowledge, our hearts with wisdom, our bodies with food, shelter and clothing, and who walks with us through the terror of death and dying into life everlasting.
Yet I wrestle with the meaning of these core beliefs, testing their meaning in the whole range of human knowing. Theological doctrines, in this very important sense, are more like theoretical hypotheses than dogmatic utterances, a point often emphasized, for example, by Pannenberg. They are claims to knowledge, and like any other such claims, we must open them up to doubt. For the most stringent test of knowledge is the willingness to subject one's basic presuppositions and cherished beliefs to the radical and impartial test of evidence. Unless we are prepared to have our views falsified, we cannot finally claim that they grasp something deeply true about reality. In this claim lies the paradox of objectivity. On the one hand, the more our theories survive such testing the more we feel warranted to believe that they are true; yet we also know that they must eventually be disproven, since no theory yields a literal picture and complete explanation of the world, and hence we must be willing to renounce them in humility to the ineffable mystery of existence. And so in theology as in the natural sciences, I believe we are called to the discipline of constantly constructing, testing, and, if necessary, even abandoning our paradigms as we engage the mysterious and surprising character of the world.
For me those tests of faith lie most immediately in the context of the natural sciences. Let me share a few of them with you, turning first to cosmology, the study of the origin and structure of the universe. It is here that I began initially to explore new ways of relating theology and science, since for me cosmology has always had a special attraction. Can we, even in science, conceive of the universe as a whole? Can there be a scientific theory about everything that is? How could such a theory be tested? Would such a theory be relevant to any of our biblical and theological claims about how the world came to be, or about God's continuing creative acts in the world?
In fact, one of the triumphs of physics in this century has been the construction of a scientific cosmology. Though fraught with problems in classical physics, a theory of the whole has become feasible--though debatable--in contemporary physics. It was the genius of Albert Einstein who first, in 1905, combined the concepts of space and time to produce the four-dimensional spacetime interpretation of nature. Within a decade he had extended this concept to include the effects of gravity by introducing the concept of spacetime curvature and placing curvature and matter into a dynamic "give and take" relation in which "matter tells space how to curve and space tells matter how to move," as Charles Misner, Kip Thorne, and John Wheeler describe it.
Using Einstein's theory of relativity, cosmologists have produced two now-standard models of the universe. In both, the entire universe, all that is, starts off some fifteen billion years ago in "the Big Bang." Unlike the infinite, flat, and unchanging universe of Newton, we believe the universe itself is even now still expanding from that incredibly small state of infinite densities and temperatures at its beginning. Yet according to these models, the universe could have one of two very different far futures: one in which it will expand and cool forever, another in which it eventually re-contracts, returning again to infinite temperatures and vanishing size. If the universe has a finite future, it turns out that it also must have a finite size; such a model is called a closed universe. If it has an infinite future, it must also have an infinite size; this possibility is called an open universe. These astonishing scenarios raise profound questions about the origin, nature and destiny of the universe, questions which seem in many ways to relate to the biblical belief in God the Creator.
Now by the term "Creator" theologians bring together two distinct concepts: creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing, and creatio continua or continuous creation. Creation out of nothing stands for the absolute transcendence of God and the utter dependence of all creation on God as its source. Without God there would be nothing, neither form nor substance to use the classical phrases. Moreover the act of creating is a free act on God's part, unconditioned and unnecessary. Hence the world is in this double sense arbitrary: it need not be the way it is, for God was free to create it another way, and it need not be at all, for God creates out of freedom. Hence we can say that God creates, not only matter and life, but the very possibility of matter and life, and that God creates all that is in a single free and transcendent act which embraces all time and space. This is why, for example, Augustine argued, in the Confessions, that God creates time as well as all material things--God does not just create in time, but time itself has a beginning. Understood thus as creatio ex nihilo, all things owe their existence to God--not just at the beginning but everywhere in time. Moreover the very distinction between God and the world was often couched in language about the finite versus the infinite: God is eternal, everlasting, omnipresent, infinite, the world is temporal, transitory, finite.
Yet according to the Big Bang, the entire universe has a finite history, beginning a definite and finite time ago--something on the order of fifteen billion years. Does the beginning of the universe as seen by science, the event at "t=0," correspond in any way to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo? I think this is one of the leading questions on the agenda for theology and science today. It is the subject of intense debate ranging from those who closely identify with the two concepts of creation, as in recent articles by Ted Peters, to those who wish to keep science and religion strictly segregated, as reflected in the widely held "two languages" or "two worlds" approach.
I am working to construct a middle position in which the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo could be related to, and in a definite sense, tested by, scientific cosmology, through a detailed process of unfolding the meaning of ex nihilo through a series of models until these models gain direct correspondence with science. I take creatio ex nihilo as containing, as its core insight, the concept of absolute dependence, a concept which entails the radical contingency of all creation. Now one fruitful model of contingency is finitude and finitude in turn can be interpreted in terms of time and space, as well as through other categories. Hence ex nihilo can be taken to entail, though it cannot be exhaustively reduced to, the belief (or prediction!) that a fundamental characteristic of the universe must be temporal finitude.
Traditionally this was taken in a historiographic sense, that the universe had a beginning in time, that time itself began or was created along with the universe, as I already mentioned. Clearly in this way the universe as depicted by scientific cosmology is "consonant with" (to use the germinal phrase of Ernan McMullin) the theological meaning of finitude and in turn the broader theological claims about contingency and dependence, and a temporally finite world is sharply differentiable from an eternal Creator.
Yet according to cosmology, the universe may be either temporally limited or unlimited in terms of the future, depending on whether it is closed or open, and its size may be infinite--both of which seem inconsistent with the doctrine of creation and the meaning of the distinction between God and creation. Moreover, what would we say to the even more complicated claim that the universe, if open, is in fact both finite and infinite--having a finite past and an infinite future and size? Would this resonate with or be in dissonance to the theological meaning of creation out of nothing, or our traditional conceptual framework in which we thought of God as infinite and the world as finite? If the universe is destined to last forever and if its size is infinite, how do we distinguish it from God as its source? Moreover, recent inflationary theories of the universe, and the widely-debated "universe without edges" which Steven Hawking describes in his Brief History of Time, take the discussion to another level of complexity. Though space won't permit us to continue here, a number of us are very actively working on a detailed philosophical and theological appraisal of these issues.
Let us leave this problem for now, for this is a cutting edge issue which is simply not settled so far. Another mode of relating cosmology to theology is to return to the basic paradox of existence, why there is anything at all. Though science explores the causal chains which take us from the present to the possible beginning of the universe, we still ask why there is in fact any universe as such. I remember as a child drifting in that dreamlike state just before sleep on many a warm summer's night, remembering the stars and my telescope, and then asking, "What if there were no God? Would there be anything at all? Isn't even empty space something? Could there truly be absolutely nothing?"
Now we are discovering that, even at the boundaries and limits of scientific explanation, there remains this fundamental question, posed at a meta-level to science, the question of existence as such. We know our current understanding of the universe will change--and is already doing so with the new inflationary theories and eleven-dimensional models of the universe--and yet even if through a new theory we push the clock back somehow to before the Big Bang, that theory too must eventually run into a limiting question preset by the very method of scientific inquiry. For science explains one contingent state of affairs in terms of another equally contingent one; every answer leads to a new question and the ladders of science are infinitely long backwards and forwards in time, upwards to the universe and downwards to the subatomic realms and beyond.
Granted, the currently popular "theories of everything" challenge this view, for suppose there does exist a unique, fully self-consistent and entirely correct theory of everything, and further suppose that we could find it using only a finite number of data points. Then science would be at an end! Is this possible? And would it mean that the existence as such of the universe would necessarily be entailed by such a theory, or only that if a universe exists it would have to exist in this way?
To me this approach tends a priori to raise more questions than answers. I would argue that no theory could be fully self-evident, self-sufficient, and necessary, and at the same time be scientific; i.e., empirical, testable, and hence contingent. It is here, to this level of question about the contingent existence per se of the universe, that I believe Western monotheism has a great deal to contribute. It is here that I find the meaning of the transcendence of God as Creator and the essential distinction between God and creation to be precisely on target. For most of Western theism holds unswervingly that God as the transcendent Creator is the unique self-sufficient and necessary source of all that is, the ground of being who creates the universe, to use the Big Bang model for a concrete example, both at its beginning and at every moment from there on until its future--be it finite or infinite. It is God who, in the time-honored phrase, is "Maker of Heaven and Earth," that is, of all that is.
The theological commitment thus seems to be grounded on the contingency of the universe, a contingency finally beyond the ability of any scientific theory (i.e., contingent epistemology) to dissolve. If that be true, and it is certainly the argument recently restated with conviction by as distinguished a philosopher as Norris Clarke, then only philosophical theology can give a truly coherent explanation to the most general and most existential questions raised by science or any other epistemology.
Christian faith also holds that God is the ground for the intelligibility of nature through the divine logos, the mode of God's creating in which all things were and are being created by the Word of God. This means to me that the intelligibility of the universe, and hence the ability of science both to explain and to predict, is grounded in the intelligibility of God as present and expressed in that divine Word in all creation. Moreover, the freedom of God to create at all, and to create the universe which is actual, means that the universe need not be the way it is, and that by reasoning alone we cannot discover its facts and laws. Instead we must look, probe, press, touch and measure this world to discover its real character. And so modern science as an empirical method, in contrast to the Aristotelian ideal of deduction, is grounded in the doctrine of creation: that God freely creates all that is.
The doctrine of creation also entails the concept of continuous creation. God is present as immanent Creator acting in each moment, where novelty and surprise, chance and change, are the keys. Not only is God the transcendent source of all that is, in this sense answering the question why there is anything at all, but God is immanent to every process, particle, and event in nature. As St. Paul wrote, "we live and move and have our being in God."
What can we mean, though, by God's continuous, active presence in light of contemporary science? Here again I find science raising some thorny issues. Following the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, the deterministic framework of Newtonian mechanics seemed to many to exclude God from active and constant interaction with the world. It seemed that God could only intervene, filling the gaps in science's account of nature. But these gaps closed as science advanced until nothing was left for God to do except, possibly, get the whole thing started, and an interventionist God was in effect a God who was usually absent--hardly the God of covenant and grace.
Today, however, we are in a new era of rapproachment between science and religion. The deterministic world view of Newton has in many quarters been thoroughly eroded by science itself. Yet what has replaced it? According to many, the overwhelming message of science is that constant change and blind chance dominate nature rather than mechanical causality, fixity, plan and purpose. To mention just three areas: Quantum physics, the study of nature at the atomic level, depicts nature as dominated by chance. According to the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the classical meaning of mechanical causality should be replaced by at most a statistical causality at the level of microscopic processes. In Darwin's theory of biological evolution, species evolve through the principles of variation and selection, and nature's structures arise out of endless, "blind" chance events. Today we know that at the molecular level genes provide the mechanism of variation and, in combination with environment factors, genetic variation drives the entire evolutionary process. Finally thermodynamics, too, underscores the fundamental role of chance in nature, where all systems are governed by the second law of increasing entropy and hence increasing disorder. Recent work in chaos even suggests that classical physics was less deterministic than we thought.
And so contemporary science, by emphasizing blind chance over mechanical determinism, both opens the doors for the presence and activity of God as immanent in a universe without strict mechanical determinism at every level, and at the same time challenges our belief that such an immanent God can act with any sense of purpose and plan within the random processes of the world. Will contemporary science overturn our hope that all things are somehow moving forward to a final, eschatological fulfillment, a fulfillment that gives life meaning in the face of death? When the universe was thought of as a causal system, as classical physics argued, there seemed to be no place for God to act; now if it is an open system with chance in charge, as quantum physics, thermodynamics and biological evolution portray it, there seems to be no room for God to act with purpose--even if God is somehow acting in the "background noise" of random, chance events.
How then is theology to reconceive the fundamental problem of God's meaningful action, redemption and eschatological fulfillment of the world in light of science? Here I can only mention some of the research proposals now being explored in depth by several of us. It is my hope that each can provide one piece of a larger emerging picture in which God can be seen to be at work in the universe. Each proposal is aimed precisely at meeting the challenge of science within the territory staked out by science--not by trying to protect theology by separating its domain as "the world God so loved."
At one end of the scale, arguments for the action of God can be framed in terms of quantum physics. Because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the world appears to be open-ended; indeed without quantum indeterminacy it would be hard to understand how there is any room for real chance in the world at all. Of course chance appears at higher levels of organization--in the psychological, neurophysiological, biological, cellular, and molecular levels. Yet without chance playing an ontological role at the quantum level one could not be certain that such higher level indeterminancies were not merely a sign of human ignorance of the underlying microscopic factors governing these processes. If quantum physics guarantees that indeterminancy at the quantum level is irreducible, that, as many argue, nature contains no "hidden variables" in the classical sense at least, then nature at the most fundamental level must be inherently open-ended.
Quantum physics thus contributes a necessary--though not a sufficient--piece to the explanatory puzzle of how God acts in the world by helping us understand the world as inherently open-ended. If the world is grounded ultimately in the being and reality of God, then God's action in the world involves a continuous creative presence within each event, co-determining the outcome not only of human choice but even of elementary physical processes.
As Arthur Peacocke has so powerfully suggested, quantum physics discloses one mode in which law and chance work together: precisely defined probability distributions (given by quantum laws) govern fully random events (quantum chance). By analogy we too operate between the poles of law and chance, for all of our actions are consistent with the laws of nature, yet we often experience them as free choices. By an extension of the analogy we gain insight into how God can act through the interplay of law and chance, such that all the unfolding of history is at once the law-like evolution of a natural system and the unique and irreversible sequence of free decisions grounded on divine initiative. Hence against those like Jacques Monod who believe that chance disproves theism, we now find chance to be part of the instrumentarium of divine creativity, and moreover, we now understand that chance is precisely what is required for the divine creation of self-conscious creatures with genuine free will.
Quantum physics offers a number of other, related insights towards a new philosophy of nature and, in turn, grist for the theological mill. Recently I have begun to explore these further insights. For example, quantum chance is strikingly different from classical chance, where events we call random are really the result of underlying but undetected causal processes. With quantum chance, as I said above, we now believe there are no such underlying classical, causal paths. But there is more to quantum chance than this: there are in fact two very different kinds of quantum chance in nature. One kind governs the particles which produce the form and structure of matter (the so-called fermions of half-integral spin) while another helps fuse matter together by governing the particles which transmit the fundamental interactions in nature (bosons with integral spin). Hence the challenge will be to introduce not only quantum chance into the philosophical and theological arena along with classical chance, but the difference between kinds of quantum chance.
Another insight comes from the complex relation between form and statistics in quantum physics. Classically we think of chance as disturbing a given structure: factors beyond our control introduce noise into the signal or scatter the data around the "correct" value. However, in quantum physics, chance plays a constitutive role in the formation of form and the dynamics of elementary interactions. Unlike the situation in much of classical physics, in quantum physics the statistical distributions of matter are all there is: they form the structures of nature. For example, the electron cloud, that "fuzzy" distribution of electrons surrounding the nucleus, is what gives rise to the structure, form and volume of the atom, and the statistics that characterize electrons (as represented by the Pauli exclusion principle) give rise to the impenetrability of the atom as well as its chemical valency; i.e., its power to combine in precise ways with other atoms to form chemical compounds. Somehow we must begin to think about creation theology in terms that reflect this more subtle interweaving of form and dynamics, of chance and order, of structure as embodied chaos.
One last insight, for now, comes from the problem of distant correlations of once-integrated quantum systems. Through the growing discussion of Bell's theorem we are facing an increasing choice between abandoning any but a predictivist interpretation of quantum theory or developing a new metaphysical system adequate and applicable to quantum physics. We seem to be moving progressively towards reconceptualizing the physical world through new metaphors of holism and global unity; nature from the quantum perspective is like a finely connected gossamer. These new metaphysical images promise vastly to reshape our concept of the immanence of God and the ways in which the divine intentionality is expressed in the world.
At the other end of the scientific scale, cosmology too offers an unexpected suggestion to theologians about the meaning of divine creation. According to recent arguments, we now believe that the character of our universe is highly dependent on the precise values of its natural constants, like the speed of light and the mass and charge of the electron. Extremely slight changes in these values would have resulted in an entirely different universe, one in which life would never have evolved at all. Captured by the phrase, "the Anthropic Principle," this argument suggests that the existence of our particular universe is intimately connected with the possibility of life. It could even be that our universe was, in some very specific sense, designed for life, designed to be one in which life would eventually evolve by the random processes of biological evolution.
Hence the Anthropic Principle combines a form of classical teleology, that there is a design to nature, with the challenge of a thoroughly statistical scenario for all actual processes in nature. Though this should not be taken in any way as constituting a new "proof" for the existence of God, nor does it imply that the only way God acts is by creating the universe with the right initial conditions, it does help theologians speak empirically about the dependence of all that is on a transcendent Creator, and about the cosmological significance of life in our universe. From an anthropic viewpoint, life is a global characteristic of this particular universe, leading after so many centuries to a new perspective in which biological existence may again be seen as central to the meaning of the universe. From this perspective all the forms of creation--physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and spiritual--evolve equally and directly through the divine choosing. Of course the Anthropic Principle need not be taken in any sense as a design argument, and perhaps it should not be. But it would still suggest that God is radically transcendent to creation, since it underscores the interrelated contingency of the characteristics of this universe (its existence per se and its compatibility with the requirements for the evolution of life), and hence its dependence in an ontological sense on God as necessary being.
Yet natural processes are characterized not only by chance and law; there is competition between forces producing order and others leading to disorder, cycles of growth and cycles of decay, times of construction and periods of dissipation, mingled in a profound and intimate way. Our theological perspective must be informed by these insights as well. When we work with a theology of redemption, entailing as it does the problem of good and evil, the relation of sin and death and the culpability of human free will within the mystery of divine grace and forgiveness, the agony of nature must become a central reality warranting sober theological interpretation.
How then should we understand the role of suffering and sacrifice in the process of healing and salvation? In the nineteenth century, thermodynamics portrayed a world of inevitable dissipation and decay. What kind of future could one hope for--personally or cosmically--if the relentless increase of entropy meant that all things must decay and come to equilibrium? Now, however, through the discoveries of Ilya Prigogine and others involved in non-linear, non-equilibrium thermodynamics and chaos theory, we are now learning that it is the very increase in entropy in complex biological and chemical systems that brings order out of chaos, providing the drive behind evolution and its production of ever more complex organisms. The production of entropy seems to be a factor in both disordering and ordering the world, and from a theological perspective this suggests to me that even in nature, suffering can be a part of redemption when God acts through the sorrows and brokenness of the world to bring hope and victory.
Again the life sciences have taught us that all life on earth, including homo sapiens, has arisen from simpler forms through a process involving suffering and death, that nature is "red in tooth and claw." We must now ask whether our commitment to a God who enters into human life in all its dimensions ought not be seen as entering into all that human life entails, including its evolutionary past, its environmental present, and its open-ended future. If God could become human for us and die on a cross, can that same God embrace the whole four-billion-year sweep of evolution? Somehow we must begin to talk about the immanence of God in all of nature's processes. If suffering love is the key to redemption, as Scripture claims, we must begin to listen to the suffering of our planet and learn from all that has gone into making us what we are, if our interpretation of redemption is to be faithful to the redemption activity of a God concerned not just with human history but with all creation.
Finally, what about the future? As physicist Frank Tipler has repeatedly stressed, from the perspective of cosmology, the single most important fact we face is that the universe will continue for an almost inconceivably long time. The future of the universe is immense. Moreover, all that now exists will continue to undergo violent change. Life has taken four billion years to evolve on earth and yet in just ten thousand years humankind has produced all of its civilizations, cultures, and histories. What does it mean to think in terms, not of decades or even centuries into the future, but in vast multiples of all known history? The solar system should last for another five billion years, and beyond it the universe will probably exist for at least one hundred billion years--if not forever. And so we face the profound challenge of the far future of the universe: what cosmic role will life spawned on this tiny planet have over the countless billions of years ahead? The Bible portrays a future of supreme fulfillment for humankind--though the path ahead includes an Armageddon of strife and pain. How are we to think and rethink the biblical drama in contemporary cosmic proportions?
Somehow I believe we must start by conceiving human nature as intimately connected to the universe as a whole. We must let the reality of this universe which science has revealed reshape to the core our understanding of our destiny and our responsibility to a universal future. According to some remarkable work by Freeman Dyson, the perspective science brings is one not only of a vast, even infinite universe in size, but one in which life, if it is careful and clever, can continue for countless billions of years into the far future. If the speculations of Freeman Dyson, Frank Tipler and other cosmologists are at all correct, we are quite literally at the infancy of the universe and of life within it. If we do explore space and colonize the stars, as some envision, our role may indeed become that of the voice, the mind, even the spirit, of the universe. In the New Testament, Jesus promises to be with us "to the close of the age" (Matthew 28:20). In a cosmological perspective, this promise takes on an astounding character, and our calling is to unlimited discovery and unimaginable adventure.
Hence I believe that contemporary cosmology challenges us to vastly expand our own horizons, to evaluate our place in a cosmic setting, and to dream a dream beyond the earlier confines of our terrestrial backyard. I too believe that, no matter how inconceivably vast or how astonishingly new our discoveries of the universe will be, all is dependent upon the primordial ground of being, a creature of a transcendent source whose ultimate purposes are both everywhere manifest and yet hidden beyond the horizon of existence. As we embrace our role in the universe, we know that this source is also on our side, for God has become one of us, taking up within the divine the quarks and atoms, the dust of stars, and the flesh and blood of evolution, the struggle for consciousness and the paradox of human selfhood. From this perspective we can even more emphatically declare that we "live and move and have our being" within this divine mystery of our Creator and Redeemer. In this framework at least, I am convinced that together theology and science can more profoundly and more precisely address the mystery of existence--personal and historical, terrestrial and cosmological--than either theology or science can in "splendid isolation."
Science has brought both greater knowledge and more staggering moral and spiritual challenges to our age than any other system of thought in human history. We are only just now beginning a long road ahead, seeking to re-formulate religious faith with intellectual integrity in this world of science, and addressing the promises and conflicts of technology, human need, fragile global ecology, and nonrenewable finite resources. Will the future bring a new coherence of religious beliefs and scientific knowledge, or are we at the end of an era of religion stretching back over four millennia?
I recall my childhood, when I began to learn about reconciliation of
views and, more deeply, of people. I remember the exuberance of science,
the joy of discovering nature and myself as a part of nature, the delight
of warm Sundays spent in church and at home. I also remember the searing
flame of death's sting, the growing doubt cast by my increasing education
in science, and the response of so much of our culture in its rejection
of religion and its universalization of science. I understand out of my
own life's experiences why so many today think our religions are drying
up like desert rivers. I am tempted to believe this too, for it would be
a relief to embrace nihilism with the stoic indifference one gains from
accepting an inevitable conclusion.
Yet I keep believing that we will make it across the scorched badlands, discovering new springs of life-giving water to feed our religious streams. I believe that, like the early pioneers, we will make it across the desert, climb the challenging Rockies, and see the desert streams flow into the Golden Bay and the thundering Pacific Ocean beyond. And I believe the pioneers of this coming age will produce a new community who will do "theology and science" by incorporating the truth of each into a broader integration, a new paradigm.
And so we have a stream to follow to a vast ocean, there to build a bridge across it--a bridge which will bear traffic and reunite scientists and theologians from separated communities of different languages and customs but of common humanity. Our San Francisco Bay is crowned by a magnificent bridge which unites San Francisco with its neighbors to the north. It was built, not from one side over to the other, but by starting from both sides and meeting in the middle. And so, like the Golden Gate Bridge, we must start from both the scientific and the religious communities. Each must find bedrock in its own world, yet each must soar forward into the blue sky, with girders, cables, rivets, and most of all, with people who will climb out there, hanging in space above a cold churning ocean, and, while pointing out across the gulf that still separates them, add another piece to the invisible arch, hoping that in the fullness of time the two structures will meet at the keystone.
It is clearly a project that will take decades. But I believe the day will come in the not too distant future when, seen from a distance, a "critical displacement" will be reached and the structure will change in appearance from two ungainly, ragged outcroppings on distant shores to two arms reaching for each other, almost touching, defining a perfect curve through the blue sky.