I have recently been going through some old papers and essays from seminary and I found an old reading response concerning science and theology. This post reproduces some of that response and adds some further thoughts. The response was originally written in regard to chapter 10 of Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society by Ted Peters. The chapter is entitled “Genes and Sin: More Unfinished Business.”
Science and theology can certainly inform one another. I believe that it is a fundamental mistake to disregard the progress, concepts, and prescriptions that are founded upon sound scientific investigation. In other words, I believe that if established science refutes a position you hold, you should ditch the position and find another. I imagine that many will be incredulous of such a statement; therefore, it needs nuance. First of all, the science must be well-attested and established. We should not bend and sway at every wind of change present in current research. However, eventually, a consensus among experts will coalesce and we disagree at our own peril. We should have a healthy skepticism of science as data must be interpreted and scientists have agendas like everyone else. But healthy skepticism is different from ignorant denial. Healthy skepticism allows for conversion after an initial questioning.
Furthermore, we should distinguish between the purposes and ends of theological positions and scientific investigations. For example, sound science has dismissed the idea that the earth is only 10,000 years old as some biblical literalists insist. Science has not refuted the truth of the Bible in this instance; it has only dismissed a particular interpretation of the Bible. The theological position of the truth of the Bible still stands as there is a distinct difference between the truth of the Bible and the truth of an interpretation. Framed positively, as we learn more about the world, we can refine our understanding of the Bible.
There is also a negative aspect to science in dialog with theology. I believe that science as a method is ill-equipped to answer theology’s most important questions. I appreciate Peters’ extended discussion on current progress in genetics. However, as an initial response, I would caution those searching for space for God and theological concepts within the investigations and the gaps of genetic theory. It is my opinion that when theology is too closely intermeshed with science it will founder upon the rocks of an epistemological framework that cannot answer questions of ultimate purpose or meaning. Consider one of theology’s most famous and pressing questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Science as a method seeks to explain the phenomenon we encounter in the world. It seeks to describe existence, but it cannot as an evidence-based practice account for existence itself. To answer that question, one must move beyond science as a method and into the realm of philosophy and theology.
I want to reiterate that science can inform and correct theology. John Polkinghorne’s Belief in God in an Age of Science fundamentally altered my worldview as a young college student and illustrates how theology and science can work together. However, it is unfair to both the theological task and the scientific method to force them to play by the same rules. Peters is concerned about advances in genetics and the concept of sin. If alcoholism is genetic, how does that alter our concept of sin? Augustine’s conception of original sin as a biological heredity is firmly wedded to a scientific framework. Therefore, science may help refine our thoughts on sin, and my inclination would be to keep scientific progress in genetics in the corner of one eye. However, we should move beyond Augustine and separate the concept of sin (or perhaps more accurately the guilt and shame of sin) from genetics because I do not believe that the theologian will find the ultimate answers in genetic science.