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Religion in an Age of Science (Gifford Lectures 1989-1991, Vol 1) Paperback – April, 1990
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A comprehensive examination of the major issues between science and religion in today's world.
About the Author
Ian G. Barbour has retired from Carleton College where he was professor of physics, professor of religion, and Bean Professor of Science, Technology, and Society. The "preeminent synthetic in the field" (Cross Currents,) he is the author of several influential books, including Ethics in an Age of Technology and Myths Models, and Paradigms, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He gave the world-renowned Gifford Lectures, 1989-1991.
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He wrote in the Preface to this 1990 book, "Five features of our scientific age set the agenda for this volume: 1. The Success of the Methods of Science... Science as a method constitutes the first challenge to religion in a scientific age. 2. A New View of Nature: Many of the sciences show us domains of nature with characteristics radically different from those assumed in previous centuries... What do these discoveries tell us about the nature of life and mind?... 3. A New Context for Theology: ... I will develop a relational and multilevel view of reality... [in which] interdependent systems and larger wholes influence the behavior of lower-level parts. Such an interpretation provides an alternative to both the classical dualism of spirit and matter... and the materialism that often replaced it... 4. Religious Pluralism in a Global Age... Religious pluralism calls into question exclusive claims for any one religious tradition or theological viewpoint... 5. The Ambiguous Power of Technology... The control and direction of technology involves ethical values such as justice, freedom, and environmental stewardship..." (Pg. xiii-xv)
He states in the first chapter, "Historians have wondered why modern science arose in the Judeo-Christian West among world cultures. A good case can be made that the doctrine of creation helped to set the stage for scientific activity. Both Greek and biblical thought asserted that the world is orderly and intelligible... Only biblical thought held that the world's order is contingent rather than necessary... We must be careful not to overstate the case for the role of Christian thought in the rise of science. Arab science made significant advances in the Middle Ages, while science in the West was often hampered by an otherworldly emphasis... I believe the case for the historical contribution of Christianity to the rise of science is convincing. But once science was well established, its own success was sufficient justification for many scientists, without the need for religious legitimation." (Pg. 17)
He acknowledges, "I am in basic agreement with the `Theology of Nature' position, coupled with a cautious use of process philosophy... the center of the Christian life is an experience of reorientation, the healing of our brokenness in new wholeness, and the expression of a new relationship to God and to the neighbor... But the centrality of redemption need not lead us to belittle creation, for our personal and social lives are intimately bound to the rest of the created order. We are redeemed in and with the world, not from the world. Part of our task, then, is to articulate a theology of nature, from which we will have to draw from both religious and scientific sources." (Pg. 30)
He explains, "I defend a `critical realism' that takes religious models seriously but not literally. They are ... human constructs that help us interpret experience by imagining what cannot be observed... The sense of awe and mystery associated with numinous experience is an additional safeguard against literalism. But we do not have to go to the opposite extreme and take religious models as psychologically useful fictions whose only function is to express and evoke distinctive ethical attitudes..." (Pg. 45)
He outlines, "We have traced a number of polarities ... in science and ... in religion... which... were found to be present in both fields: objectivity and subjectivity; rationality and personal judgment; universality and historical conditioning; criticism and tradition; and tentativeness and commitment. But some features of religion seem to be without parallel in science: the role of story and ritual; the noncognitive functions of religious models in evoking attitudes and encouraging personal transformation; the type of personal involvement characteristic of religious faith; and the idea of revelation in historical events." (Pg. 65)
He states, "I cannot agree with those postmodernist feminists who recommend that we should reject objectivity and accept relativism. Western thought has indeed been dualistic, and men have perhaps been particularly prone to dichotomize experience. But the answer is surely to try to avoid dichotomies, not merely to relativize them." (Pg. 79) He goes on, "I disagree with those radical feminists who perpetuate dualistic thinking by inverting the prevailing cultural dualisms... Absolutizing the feminine seems as dubious as absolutizing the masculine. Surely the goal should be for each of us as men and women to express all our diverse capacities, whether stereotyped in our culture as male or female---and to symbolize the same diversity of creative characteristics in our models of God." (Pg. 81)
He admits, "I believe that the Christian tradition has the potential to meet those criteria better than other traditions, but I have to acknowledge that it has seldom lived up to this potential. I can learn from other traditions, coming to appreciate some of their ethical sensitivities, meditation practices, and models of God, which can be part of my life... I am not in a position to pass judgement on them. If I take a confessional stance, I can only witness to what has happened in my life and in that of the Christian community; my main task is to respond to the deepest insights of my own heritage." (Pg. 90)
He is critical of Fritjof Capra's book The Tao of Physics: "Capra is particularly enthusiastic about bootstrap theory... which proposes that there are no smallest components of matter but only a network of mutual relations... This section of Capra's book shows the dangers of tying religious beliefs too closely to particular scientific theories that may turn out to be rather short-lived. In general, I think Capra has overstressed the similarities and virtually ignored the DIFFERENCES between the two disciplines. [religion and science]... I believe the relation between TIME and TIMELESSNESS is also significantly different in physics and in mysticism... Capra ignores the diversity among and within Eastern religions and says nothing about Western mysticism." (Pg. 119-120)
He states, "Some atheistic or agnostic astronomers feel more comfortable with the idea of an infinite series of oscillations, just as some theists welcome a beginning of time. But I would say it is equally difficult to imaging a beginning of time or an infinite span of time. Both are unlike anything we have experienced. Both start with an unexplained universe... If a single, unique Big Bang continues to be the most convincing scientific theory, the theist can indeed see it as an instant of divine origination. But I will suggest that this is not the main concern expressed in the religious notion of creation." (Pg. 129)
He argues, "How then are we to understand the opening chapter of Genesis? A literal interpretation of the seven days would conflict with many fields of science.... The attempt to find scientific information in Genesis is dubious theology as well as dubious science. By treating it as if it were a book of science ahead of its times, we tend to neglect both the human experiences that lie behind it and the theological affirmations it makes." (Pg. 133)
He observes, "we noted [Hugh] Everett's proposal that every time there are alternative quantum potentialities in an atom, the universe splits into several branches. This interpretation of quantum theory involves a mind-boggling multiplicity of worlds, since each world would have to split again into many branches during each of the myriad atomic and subatomic events throughout time and space... More to the point, it seems to be inherently unverifiable... I suggest, however, that one could interpret many-worlds hypotheses THEISTICALLY... One might ... hold that God created many universes in order that life and thought would occur in this one. Admittedly... it involves a colossal waste and inefficiency if there are many lifeless universes. But then again, one might reply that for God neither space not time is in short supply, so efficiency is a dubious criterion." (Pg. 137-138)
He suggests, "in an evolutionary perspective we may view both the human and the divine activity in Christ as a continuation and intensification of what had been occurring previously. We can think of him as representing a new stage in evolution and a new stage in God's activity. Christ as a person... was part of the continuous process that runs back through Australopithecus ... to those atoms formed in primeval stars." (Pg. 211) Later, he adds, "I submit that it is the biblical idea of the SPIRIT that we find the closest parallels to the process understanding of God's presence in the world and in Christ." (Pg. 236)
He concludes, "In the PROCESS MODEL, God is a creative participant in the cosmic community. God is like a teacher, leader, or parent... Such an understanding of God... expresses many features of religious experience and the biblical record, especially the life of Christ and the motif of the cross... Process thought... gives the strongest endorsement of environmental responsibility. Process thought represents God's action as Creator and Redeemer within a single conceptual scheme... We can therefore tell an overarching story that includes within it the story of the creation of the cosmos, from elementary particles to the evolution of life and human beings, continuing in the stories of covenant and Christ... The process model thus seems to have fewer weaknesses than the other models considered here. But... all models are limited and partial... the use of diverse models can keep us from the idolatry that occurs when we take any one model of God too literally. Only in worship can we acknowledge the mystery of God and the pretensions of any system of thought claiming to have mapped out God's ways." (Pg. 269-270)
Barbour's unique status (he has a Ph.D. in physics, as well as a degree in divinity) makes him one of the most interesting of contemporary commentators on science and religion. This book (as well as his other books) will be "must reading" for anyone seriously studying the relation of science and religion.
At the outset of the book, Barbour revealed his appreciation for process thought as an aid for integrating religion and science. Chapter eight is devoted to a more detailed account of why he holds this appreciation. He begins the chapter by asserting that the twentieth-century view of nature is very different from the medieval or Newtonian views. It is evolutionary and includes a complex combination of law and chance. The twentieth century views nature as interdependent, holistic, multi-leveled, and community based.
Process philosophy has a systematic metaphysics which most closely resembles the twentieth- century scientific view of nature. Whitehead saw his work as an attempt to construct "a system of ideas which bring aesthetic, moral and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science."(Process and Reality, vi) Barbour notes several elements which Whitehead emphasized: 1. The primacy of becoming over being; 2. The interconnection of events; 3. Reality as organism; 4. A measure of self-creative freedom for each entity. Barbour claims that in Whitehead's metaphysical system, causality for the entity is partly efficient, partly self-creative, and partly final. Each entity is the product of past causes, divine purposes, and the entity's own activity.
The diverse levels of experienc! e described by Whitehead allow for a description of experiences ranging from the least complex (e.g., an electron) to the most complex (e.g., a person or culture). Each type of individual in this diverse spectrum enjoys subjective experience, a notion David Griffin describes as a doctrine of panexperientialism. The author notes that process thought is opposed to dualism and claims that both mental and physical poles exist in all entities.
Barbour questions whether Whitehead's analysis adequately expresses the character of individuals at both extremes of complexity. He believes Whiteheadian categories are inadequate to express the continuing identity of the human self at the upper end. Secondly, the self-determination and novelty enjoyed by the inanimate world at the lower end of the range seem postulated by Whitehead only for the sake of metaphysical consistency. The author believes that a Whiteheadian system could be modified to correct these weaknesses without endangering its coherence.(227)
Continuing his analysis of process metaphysics in relation to nature, Barbour finds many features of contemporary science with which process metaphysics is congenial. However, he notes that the concept of purpose is difficult for scientists to accept. He reconciles part of the dilemma by noting (inaccurately I believe) that process thought maintains that the behavior of inanimate objects can be explained entirely by efficient causation. (It seems to me more accurate to place the word "almost" prior to "entirely" in this sentence).
In opening his discussion of process theology, Barbour notes that God acts as the primordial ground of order and the ground of novelty. In addition, the process God is influenced by events in the world. Barbour mentions again the notion of a dipolar God as advocated by Charles Hartshorne. In this conception, God does not retain all power and thus works persuasively as a participator in creation. God "is not before all creation but with all creation! ," Whitehead asserts. (Process and Reality, 521) In sum, Barbour professes that the Whiteheadian understanding of God is consistent with what we know about biological and human history.(234)
The categories of process thought are also helpful in discussing Christian theology. In particular, categories are available to develop the central Christian notion that "God is love." God's action in nature, in religious experience, and in Jesus Christ can be addressed using a common set of concepts offered by process theology. Process thought illumines the discussion of Christian categories of revelation, prayer, sin, immanence, personal responsibility, etc. Finally, Barbour identifies the contribution process thought makes in discussing the problem of evil.
To begin the final chapter entitled "God and Nature," Barbour discusses the various models of God's role in nature. In his discussion of the monarchical model, he identifies six problem areas: 1. accounting for human freedom; 2. offering a viable theodicy; 3. patriarchal limitations; 4. inclination toward religious intolerance; 5. present evolutionary worldview; 6. the existence of both law and chance in nature.
Following his discussion of the monarchial model, Barbour outlines the advantages and disadvantages of other models including the neo-Thomisitic, the self-limiting God, existentialist, linguistic analysis, and the world as God's body. Barbour summarizes what he feels is the process model concerning the God and nature relationship: a community with one member preeminent but not controlling. He labels the model "interpersonal social."(260) Returning to the six problems of the monarchical model, Barbour shows the adequacy of the model offered in process thought.
The author is aware of various criticisms of process and attempts to answer three. First, he acknowledges that the worshiping community may feel restricted by the dominance of metaphysical language in process thought. However, these limitation! s are inherent in almost any metaphysical scheme. He also acknowledges that the transcendent-immanent God of process thought is limited in power, but believes that conceiving God as limited is a conception that is warranted. Finally, he asserts that the process model, though departing from the classical model, adequately fulfills basic criteria: agreement with the data, coherence, scope and fertility. Barbour believes that the process model has fewer weaknesses than any of the other models he considers and is the most adequate in our attempt to speak responsibly about religion in an age of science.
Short Evaluation: This book reads like an encyclopedia of relevant theological and philosophical convictions in regards to the attempts to reconcile religion and science. The book is also written in a style that makes reading it enjoyable. After reading in the first chapter that Barbour would use process theology cautiously, I was surprised to find him so wholeheartedly appropriating process categories and ideas near the end of the book. Unfortunately, I felt like he was cramming too much in too small of a chapter. He could have fleshed out more of the implications of what a process attempt to integrate science and religion would look like. In addition, I could not agree with Barbour that Whitehead's system was inadequate to account for entities at both ends of the complexity scale. The strength of Whitehead's metaphysic, for me, is that it does offer an adequate means to talk about entities of varying complexity. All things considered, this was an excellent read!