Monday, 6 March 2017

The Scientific Advancement of Theology

An opinion piece by Giles Fraser on the Guardian website has garnered a fair number of comments, and being a piece of a religious nature, has obviously attracted the usual angry atheists.  One commenter rubbished the entire study of theology, and supported his position by quoting Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason:

The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion. Not any thing can be studied as a science without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is not the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”


Another poster pointed out that theology has changed since then.  A third poster responded to this with:
“What theology since then? As Hitchens said, "Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago". Nothing has changed since the days of Paine.”

There a few things to be said in response, least of which is that, as Paine says, theology certainly isn’t a science in the sense that most scientists would define it. I take absolutely no issue with that. Also, ‘Religion’ can speak no words at all, since it lacks a mouth, but I’ve been over that before and have no wish to belabour the point.

However, to suggest that theology has remained unchanged in the two hundred years since Paine wrote is simply untrue; it cannot be true. I say this because in many ways the people writing about theology now are very different to the people writing about it two hundred years ago. We have different outlooks, society is different, our values are different. We view what has gone before us with different eyes.

Ironically, given the constant attempts to set them in opposition to each other, this change in perspective and theology has changed, perhaps even advanced, because of science. Since Paine wrote his words, science and technology have changed not only our understanding of the universe, but the very world in which we live. We now know about evolution and genetics, our knowledge of astronomy is vastly greater than it was then, we know about molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles, radiation and quantum physics. Our place in the world is not what we thought it was, and so we have had to adjust our conception of God and how He works.

As a result of these, our understandings of God have had to become more nuanced. God didn’t merely wave his hand and there was the world. God didn’t create man out of dust. Our sun is not the only sun, our planet is not the only world that might contain life. Life itself might exist in forms that are almost totally unrecognisable to us. This knowledge has to inform our theology. Where it has not done so, we see fundamentalist sects sinking into extremism fuelled by a siege mentality as the tide of scientific evidence to show that Genesis is not literally true threatens to overwhelm them.

I have said that theology is not scientific; that’s absolutely true, nor should it be. After all, since it deals with matters upon which science cannot have a bearing, it cannot be scientific itself. However, it has changed with scientific discoveries, and with the social changes that have been brought about by those discoveries and the technology that they have produced. Theology is not, should not and cannot be static and stagnant. God is unchanging, but few would claim that we are close to an understanding of Him yet. Our understanding of God must continue to change, to grow, to expand, even as we do. We must constantly adjust and refine our conception of God based on what He has revealed and is revealing to us and, indirectly, science helps us do just that.

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