Nature's God: Nancey Murphy on Religion and Science

The Christian Century, December 27, 2005 | Go to article overview

Nature's God: Nancey Murphy on Religion and Science


With advanced degrees in theology and the philosophy of science, Nancey Murphy has specialized in the relationship between Christian thought and scientific knowledge. Her book Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (1990) won the American Academy of Religion award for excellence and a Templeton Prize as an outstanding book in science and theology. Her other books include Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (1996) and (with George F. R. Ellis) On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (1996). She has coedited several volumes, including Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (1998). Ordained in the Church of the Brethren, Murphy has taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena since 1989. We talked to her about Darwin, suffering, the soul and the origins of the cosmos.

One common way of thinking about the relation of religion and science is to say that these are two different kinds of investigations that talk about different things: science tells us how the world is, religion tells us why it is that way or what it means. Or: science tells us about creation, but not about God. Does this division make sense?

Separating religion and science into two noninteracting spheres has been a common strategy since the 18th century to avoid conflict between religion and science. While religion (or theology) and science do have different aims and employ different sorts of language, this strategy ultimately fails.

Consider, for example, the issue of human nature. Throughout much of their history Christians have understood humans dualistically--as a combination of two parts, body and soul. Developments in the cognitive neurosciences are increasingly making it clear that the brain performs all the functions once attributed to the soul, so the division breaks down. If theologians attempt to maintain the division by saying only things that are immune from scientific investigation (saying, for example, that when we speak of the soul we only mean to emphasize the value or meaning of human life), then theology becomes uninteresting and irrelevant.

James Gustafson has suggested (in An Examined Faith) that theologians can 1) ignore scientific accounts of the world; 2) attack them on the basis of a more authoritative theological perspective; 3) interpret them from a theological perspective; or 4) revise their theology in light of scientific accounts--or some combination thereof. Can you describe your own vocation in view of such options?

Attacking science is entirely inappropriate. However, much of what the general population regards as science is not science itself but scientists' interpretations of science. It is very much the business of theologians to take issue with inappropriate interpretations. An obvious example is the claim that because science does not need to invoke God in its explanations this shows that God does not exist.

A more subtle issue is the way science draws upon the limited human linguistic resources of the culture in which it develops. Theologians, be cause they are aware of a long history of cultural-linguistic developments, are sometimes in a position to point out limitations in scientists' assumptions, limitations due to their limited conceptual resources.

For example, modern physics assumes the self-sufficiency of matter. Christians (and people of other faiths) understand matter to be continuously dependent on the sustaining activity of God. In that perspective, which reflects a different concept of the nature of matter, scientific accounts of what happens are essentially incomplete, though valid within their own context.

Both of the above examples are instances of theological reinterpretation of science. Evolutionary biology per se does not need God, but theologians interpret the evolutionary process as a manifestation of divine creativity. Physicists assume the conservation of matter and energy, but theologians interpret this regularity as a manifestation of God's faithfulness. …

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