05 September 2011

Religion in an Age of Science

A book review originally published in Science & Christian Belief, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 1992):

Religion in an Age of Science, The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991
by Ian Barbour
London: SCM Press

One’s expectations of this volume may well be coloured by the knowledge that the author’s earlier work, Issues in Science and Religion, became the standard introduction to the subject for an entire generation. Are we to see his Gifford Lectures as a successor or a supplement to that earlier essay?

There are clear structural similarities between this volume and the earlier one. Gone is the introductory overview of the history of the relationship between science and religion. But the remaining sections parallel those of the previous book (to the point of re using two of the section titles). However, closer examination reveals that this is far from being just a revision of the earlier volume.

Part 1 deals with ‘Religion and the Methods of Science’. Barbour examines various ways of relating science and religion; the role of models and paradigms; and certainly similarities and differences between science and religion. One peculiarity of this section is his redefinition of theology of nature to mean little more than a broad natural theology. He completely ignores the post-Barthian developments in Reformed theology which have consistently used this term precisely to distinguish their approach from that of natural theology. Also striking, given the contemporary resurgence of orthodox Christianity is the fact that he mentions revelation only in passing.

In Part 2, ‘Religion and the theories of Science’, he concentrates on the developments which have occurred since the publication of his earlier work. His clear intention to provide another broad overview of the subject places severe constraints on how much he is able to say on individual topics. The result is an inevitable sketchiness (e.g. less than two pages on the anthropic principle in spite of its significant implications for religion). At times this verges on the dismissive (e.g. his cursory treatment of many world theories in quantum physics).

This sketchiness also tends to throw his personal biases into sharp relief. For example, his treatment of the Christian doctrine of creation is strikingly one sided. He promotes the alternative reading of Genesis 1:2, omitting to mention that this is a minority view among Old Testament scholars. This allows him to speak of creation as a continuous ordering process rather than a historical beginning. Similarly creatio ex nihilo is treated as an extension of the doctrine of redemption to the natural order, and eschatology is reduced to a mythological extrapolation from redemption. Both creation and eschatology are reduced to symbolic expressions of our trust in God. This is a tendentious reading of biblical and theological scholarship which serves to bolster his preference for process thought.

Again, in the chapter on ‘Evolution and Continuing Creation’, he reads the evidence in such a way as to support process thought. He offers useful summaries of the neo-Darwinian synthesis and current debates in evolutionary theory. Then he interprets the entire tree of life in terms of a hierarchy of levels with novel forms of organization emerging at each new level of complexity. Such ideas are commonplace today, but Barbour departs from the commonplace with his account of sentience and purposiveness. He suggests ‘that unified entities at all levels should be considered as experiencing subjects, with at least rudimentary sentience, memory, and purposiveness’ (p. 173).

The final section of the book is devoted to ‘Philosophical and Theological Implications’, with chapters discussing human nature, process philosophy, and the relationship between God and nature. As regards the relationship between mind and body, he advocates the view that minds emerge from the rudimentary experience of all entities against the alternatives of dualism, materialism, and two language theories. Turning specifically to the place of religion, he dismisses purely naturalistic explanations of its evolution. This is followed by a summary of the biblical view of human nature. Barbour looks to Geoffrey Lampe for a satisfactory explanation of the role of Christ. But the resultant spirit Christology dissolves any meaningful Trinitarianism and implies a subjective approach to atonement. This has the superficial attraction of allowing its adherents to affirm the truths of other religions but it does so at the cost of eviscerating Christianity. In place of the good news that Jesus Christ has acted decisively to transform our human situation we are left with the ambivalent message that we learn from Jesus (and other great religious teachers) how we may work to become co-creators with God. It becomes clear in the remaining chapters that this attenuated Christology meets with Barbour’s approval because it coheres with process thought. He presents a simple and attractive picture of process philosophy and then moves on to outline its theological implications. After the manner of Charles Hartshorne he defends process theology by showing how much superior it is to a caricature of classical theism. Significantly he maintains throughout the book a stony silence with respect to contemporary Trinitarian thought. The latter avoids the criticisms of process thought, can maintain a positive attitude to the scientific endeavour, and yet remains true to biblical insights in a way that is not possible for the process school.

Given Barbour's undiminished clarity of style this book is likely to follow its predecessor in becoming a standard textbook. The volume is certainly to be commended as a concise and readable overview of the science and religion dialogue of the past 20 years. However, readers seeking a neutral report of this dialogue should beware of his persistent bias in favour of process thought.

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