Why is Science Important to Modern Evangelisation?

Editorial FAITH Magazine July-August 2008s


“Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. ... God so clothes the grass of the field …” Matthew (6: 28-30)

“In saying that the Church should take serious note of modern science in her catechesis and in her evangelisation we are merely affirming that this improved observation should help to develop further our vision of reality.”

In an address given to the Pontifical Council for Culture last March, Pope Benedict said “that ... a fruitful dialogue between science and faith is … especially important. This comparison has been long awaited by the Church but also by the scientific community ...”.

The relationship between science and religion is indeed “especially important” today. Recent events, as for example the publication of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and of other best-sellers of a similar vein, and the ensuing public reactions, have only confirmed this. A recent New Scientisteditorial, which termed religion “distinctly non-rational”, labelled this debate “one of the most contentious educational and intellectual issues of the decade”.

The Historical Challenge of Modern Science

An appropriate response to the challenge of science has been “long awaited by the Church”. Since the advent of formal experimental methodology science has, sadly, been widely perceived as a threat to traditional Christianity. At its most philosophical, this challenge was first identified by Francis Bacon. More famous are the notorious affairs of Galileo and Darwin concerning cosmology and evolution. We should not underestimate the seriousness of these challenges, nor their lasting impact, for it is still commonly presumed that science disproves religion.

This is the intellectual air most people breathe, especially the young. In my own local Catholic Sixth Form College, for instance, the students consistently challenge their school chaplain with the claim that ‘science’, along with suffering, contradict the whole idea of God.

The use and abuse of science is one of the important engines of our increasingly prevalent agnosticism and we serve no one by ignoring the fact that most people now have difficulties reconciling science and religion.

Science is Now the Predominant Mindset

Scientific thinking is the predominant mindset of Western society. Not that everyone is a scientist; but science is pretty much universally presumed to be true. Contrast this with Christianity, which is now largely considered mythical and irrelevant; or with politics, now largely considered corrupt and all ‘spin’; or, indeed, with philosophy, now often thought of as an absurd, esoteric pastime.

A glance at the contemporary mass media is enough to confirm this assessment. Science is generally reported as plain fact. Politics is fodder for a good argument. Christianity is seen as blind faith, discussable on a take-it-or-leave-it basis – or else it is reduced to Sunday teatime hymns for Granny. And as for philosophy, it dare not show its face except on late-night BBC 2 or mid-morning Radio 4.

Although the dismissal of other disciplines is lamentable, it is right and good that science is taken as true – because it works. Technology proves it. Daily modern life is a testament to the truth of modern science: cars, computers, mobile phones, medicine, television, aeroplanes, GM crops, cloning … the list is endless. Science has credibility – there are good reasons for believing it. It is not just a matter of inspired guesswork; it is testable by experiment, and it is usable.

There is no greater validation of the objectivity of knowledge than that it enables intelligible, coherent, fruitful, wilful action. This experience is at the heart of human self-consciousness, in our inherent, meaningful relationship with our distinct environment.

It is not, therefore, true to assert that scientific knowledge is made up simply of theories which are the products of our own minds, conflicting models which we project onto the evidence as we attempt to interpret it. There is progress and refinement of interpretation in science as we perceive wider contexts to what we know, but it is not a subjective exercise. Our theories are successful. Atomic bombs kill – computers work. Scientific knowledge is objective and real.

It is true that such physically ‘useful’ knowledge is not so exalted as metaphysical knowledge, the object of which ranges, through observation of the physical, beyond into the spiritual realm. But it doesn’t make scientific knowledge less true.

For all these reasons science is never going to go away, and neither is the scientific mindset of our society.

The Need for a New Synthesis: A traditional Idea

It is not surprising that science gets at the truth about the world, for fundamentally science is nothing other than sophisticated observation of the cosmos. Neither is experimental methodology and mathematical description a radically new way of knowing. Indeed, observation of our physical environment and reflection about it, that which Aristotle called “Physics”, was foundational to his, and Aquinas’s, “Metaphysics”. Their philosophies were a posteriorinot a priori, and the constructive achievements and the grand civilisations that have been spawned by this way of thinking have proved their validity. All that modern science has done is to improve the quality of our observation – which in turn should have improved the quality of our civilisation.

In saying that the Church should take serious note of modern science in her catechesis and in her evangelisation we are merely affirming that this improved observation should help to develop further our vision of reality. Yet such serious note has not been taken by the Church, and neither has our technologically advanced society become a better civilisation.

The ignoring of the perennial relevance of science has itself been a perennial temptation. Fifteen centuries ago St. Augustine warned against it when, concerning “the earth, the heavens ... the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth”, he stated that “it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics which he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. ” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, AD 394 – our emphasis). The temptation today is stronger and more dangerous than ever.

In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis put the reactions to the New Science of Bacon, Descartes and their respective successors in an appropriate context. He suggested that the pre-Enlightenment popularity of an “abstract” metaphysics was “an unhealthy neighbourhood and an inauspicious hour” for the advent of “the modern scientific movement”. He called for “a new Natural philosophy”, adding “I hardly know what I am asking for”, though “I also suggest that from science herself the cure might come.” (The Abolition of Man, Fount, pp. 47-48).

Ronald Knox made this call more starkly in God and the Atom back in 1945: “I suspect that the atom will be the totem of irreligion tomorrow, as the amoeba was yesterday. Meanwhile we have to reckon not only with the attacks of our enemies, but with the inadequate apologies of faint-hearted friends. There will be an intensified demand for the kind of apologetic which gives up the notion of religious certainty, and attempts to rally the sporting spirit of our compatriots in favour of a balance of probabilities. There will be fresh attempts to dissociate natural theology altogether from our experience of the natural world around us, to concentrate more and more on precarious arguments derived from the exigencies and the instincts of human nature itself. Meanwhile theseminary-trained theologian, with all the wisdom of centuries at his finger-tips, will more than ever find himself talking a strange language, more than ever at cross-purposes with the shibboleths of an Atomic Age. So it will go on, I suppose, till we find someone with enough courage, enough learning, enough public standing to undertake the synthesis; there is a battle royal, long overdue, which still has to be fought out at the level of academic debate.” (p.13)

The New Synthesis Answers the Historical Challenge

Fr Edward Holloway, the founder of Faithmovement and former editor of this periodical, claimed to have received a key to developing such a synthesis. For Holloway human reason is that natural and immediate power of spiritual mind over physical matter which recognises unities of matter-energy and sees the potential to develop them into new unities. For the human mind, that is the spiritual soul, is in the image of that Mind which creates and sustains the whole cosmos.

Developing this theme Holloway proposed a Unity-Law of Control and Directionwhich shows that a developmental cosmos is indicative of a Supreme Mind. Thus he saw modern cosmology and biological evolution as evidence in favour of God, not against. We can look forward expectantly to the complete unification of physics into a grand unified theory, not as the vindication of materialism, but as clearly showing the unity of the Mind of God and of his plan in creation.

Science itself also gives us clear evidence for the spiritual soul in man. Material evolution led to a natural threshold, where any further increase of animal intelligence would have been biologically useless. When it did occur it could only be sustained on the basis of integration into a higher realm: it required the gift of the spiritual soul.

And so science leads to an epistemic threshold: it demands religion to make sense of the spiritual reality of man. Science does not ultimately make sense without religion.

Thus the new science dovetails, more wonderfully than did the old science, with the History of Salvation, which is also developmental and evolutionary. Science and religion are ripe for unification, and the Unity-Law of Control and Direction is that unification. As Edward Holloway said, in an unpublished book from which we print extracts in this issue,

“Without Christ man is meaningless, without man the evolution of life is meaningless, without life the earth is meaningless, but all things have meaning in Jesus Christ, to whom all things, visible and invisible are relative, and to whom all things bear witness in their being.”

What is more, the New Synthesis supports orthodox Catholicism in a manner that avoids the dangers of fundamentalism and fideism, real dangers for so much neo-orthodoxy. It also, we believe, avoids the dangers of pantheism, rationalism and modernism, which are common errors of most attempts to reconcile science and Christianity.

Science lends its Credibility to the New Synthesis

Modern science has a deeper credibility than Aristotle’s physics if only because it is more testable and more usable. Through the New Synthesis, science in some sense ‘lends’ that credibility to Christianity. What this means is that we can put forward credible preambula fidei (in other words, rational considerations which show that the act of faith is fully reasonable to the non-prejudiced human mind). These ‘preambles’ are credible to our culture because they are based in our science. In fact, we can powerfully show that the act of faith is the only rational option in our scientific culture. (It is worth noting, in passing, that most schemes of modern evangelisation and catechesis – and even theology courses – offer no preambula fidei at all, and thus in factamount to fideism. The first Vatican Council condemned this error as long ago as 1870 and the tragic consequences of not having responded adequately to that Council’s teachings are still being reaped today.)

The New Synthesis Offers a Challenge in Return

Today, more than ever, science can provide evidence for the existence of God and the existence of the human soul and thus points to a deeper purpose in the universe. If used coherently by the Church it would constitute a real challenge to the agnosticism and indifference of our society. Like St Paul’s Athenian interlocutors many, even most, would remain apathetic; but some would listen and then an opening would be created for the action of God’s grace to work in the minds and hearts of the people He loves.

Christ is Lord of the Cosmos, Not Just Lord of History

In the Faith movement we teach Christ as Lord of the cosmos as well as Lord of history and Lord of the human heart. This vision is based in the evidence of the created order itself, and therefore has a firm basis in science, for science is the study par excellenceo f the created order.
Science has revealed God’s plan of control and direction in the very fact of the laws of nature; in the unity of these laws which thus point to the oneness of God; in the developmental power of the laws which bring about all the rich diversity of the universe from stars and galaxies to complex life; and in the openness of these laws to higher synthesis and higher development within the spiritual order.

However, the idea of Christ as Lord of the cosmos is grounded just as much in revelation, building especially on the cosmic Christology of St John and St Paul. The Unity-Law offers a unique perspective on St John’s vision of Christ as the Logoso r Word of God, for the Logos should also be understood as the ‘Reason’ of God ordering all creation – the cosmic order which we discover through science. It can also shed new light on many other Christological titles and themes, for instance “the Alpha and the Omega” theme of the Book of Revelation or the Pauline theme of Christ as God’s purpose and plan for the fullness of time (cf. Eph 1:9-10). Or again within this perspective, new layers of meaning can be identified in St Paul’s teaching that “all things were made through him and forhim” (Col 1:16): all things in the universe, from quarks and photons to stars and galaxies, are necessary and interlocking parts of God’s master-plan of creation and salvation - nothing is superfluous.

The centre of the theology of the Faith movement is a vision of Christ as the total fulfilment of God’s plan from the beginning of creation. Following in the steps of the Greek Fathers, it sees Christ’s coming as willed by God from the outset. Christ is seen as the final meaning of creation, quite independently of sin.

But even this vision of Christ finds its necessary foundation in the insights of science.

Renewal of Catechesis

Those involved in the Faith movement can testify, from their pastoral experience, to the effect upon young people of introducing this science–religion link. Science can actually be a way into theology for them; a way into fostering an interest in their faith and getting them to thrill to the beauty and wisdom of God. It is exciting. It is fresh. It is so different from the usual, tired, liberal moral debates which are often served up to try to stimulate interest in religion. So different from the trendy liturgies, which frankly very few really like any more. It won’t attract everyone, but it does attract many. It can foster in them a love of their faith and it can help sustain their faith throughout their lives.

A Plea to Take Science Seriously

When we teach people about God and His work of creation and salvation, let us not be afraid of science, for from an objective point of view we have nothing to fear. As the First Vatican Council taught:

There can never be a real discrepancy between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, and God cannot deny Himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. (Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, Chapter 4, DS 3017).

The God whom we know through the Catholic faith is also the Author of the laws of science, and all of God’s words and works are in perfect harmony with each other. There can be no contradictions.

In today’s intellectual climate, where so many who invoke science in support of Christianity seem to do so in more or less veiled forms of creationism (for example, in the ‘Intelligent Design’ school of thought), and where the prevailing mindset is a complacent presumption that science has disproved religion, it is a matter of pressing urgency to proclaim from the housetops how the magnificent success of modern science points unambiguously to the existence of the supreme Mind of the Creator, and how the trajectory of thought which begins there leads convincingly to Jesus Christ as Lord of the Cosmos.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2008