Theology and Sciences – are not these opposites?

Introduction by Andreas Losch

 There are enough occasions for a contentious discussion, without irreconcilable opposites having to break up.To begin with, the common belief that theology and science are contradictory to each other, like fire and water, is a myth. The historical development and discussion of the two disciplines, even in the case of Galileo and Darwin, is much more complex and therefore more exciting than this view suggests. There are enough occasions for a controversial discussion, without the need to break open irreconcilable opposites. New challenges - such as the sustainability debate or issues of bio- and neuroethics - shape the conversation between theology and the natural sciences today.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, many see the relationship between theology and science as conflict. In this view, people of earlier times tended to be very religious and therefore described their environment in religious terms. Lightning, for instance, was considered as a sign of divine wrath. However, emerging modern science led to a better understanding of the natural world, so that scientific explanations increasingly replaced the religious explanations. It is widely believed that the Church was concerned about such developments and did its best to stifle new knowledge. In the course of time, however, new science victoriously conquered the intellectual life of the Western world and, so to the assumption, left the theologians with no other role than to fight rearguard actions and occasionally attack recent developments.

But how does this fit into the picture that natural scientists and theologians regularly meet in many places in Germany, Switzerland and around the world to discuss the similarities and differences between the disciplines? At Berkeley, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Harvard, Oxford and other places, there are even chairs or lectures dedicated to this rich topic.


Myth and reality

In fact, the historical development and debate between theology and natural sciences is also much more complex than the modern myth of a permanent conflict just described. First of all, it should be noted that at the beginning of modern science, the positive appreciation of nature as God's creation was important. Reflecting on God’s thoughts in the "Book of Nature" was a hope that the faithful astronomer Johannes Kepler wanted to realize with his endeavor. These origins find a reflection in the final chapter of Stephen Hawking's well-known "Brief History of Time": if we found a theory that unites quantum theory with relativity theory, then, Hawking says, we would know "the mind of God".

The history of the relationship between science and theology is full of other myths. Did only Columbus demonstrate that the world is a globe? The orb of the medieval rulers who symbolized the earth was not accidentally round. Therefore, the Church's alleged opposition to Columbus’ trip in the "Council of Salamanca" is in truth only the afterthought of a novelist (called Washington Irving).

But what about Galileo? Did not his case clearly show the church's hostility towards science? In the prevailing opinion, Galileo became a martyr of freedom of thought, and his antagonist Pope Urban became the representative of the dark Middle Ages. Of course, there were conflicts, and it may be argued that Galileo was not right to resist the suggestion that he saw his findings as mere hypotheses. However, one has to know that Pope Urban was a former admirer of Galileo, and Galileo was neither tortured nor imprisoned, even though one must admit that earlier sources suggested this. Galileo's condemnation was the result of a complex interplay of political circumstances, personal ambitions and wounded pride, including that of the Pope, whose arguments Galileo put in his "Dialogo" in the mouth of the "simpleton" Simplicio. Galileo himself was a thoroughly religious man who warned that one’s own interpretation of the Bible should not be confused with God's word, especially if God's creation bears a different witness (Letter to Castelli).


Tendency historiography

Leading authors who have staged the history of science and theology as conflict are two 19th-century historians, William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. In their "History of the Conflict between Religion and Science" (1875) and "History of the warfare between science and theology in Christendom" (1896), both international bestsellers, they paint a picture of the relationship between science and theology as an ongoing struggle. While Draper's work was directed against the Catholic Church in the spirit of the “Kulturkampf” (cultural wars of the 19th century), Andrew Dickson White's book extended the struggle of the Enlightenment to the whole of Christendom. Historically, this is because White's opponents in the establishment of the first American non-denominational university (Cornell University) were Protestants. These authors, with their very biased presentation, have not only influenced the textbooks.

What does history really look like? Its work-up has been in process for several decades now. It is certainly not wrong that Christian theology has been conducive to the study of nature understood as God's creation, even if it should not be overemphasized. The reality is more complex and multi-faceted than the propagandists on one side or the other want to believe.


Evolution and creation and German history

Just as the case of Galileo has to be seen and re-evaluated today, the debate about the theory of evolution has been more complex than many clichés. Again, contrary to the prevailing impression in the media of a permanent conflict, between creationists (and the intelligent design movement) on the one hand, and new atheists (such as Dawkins and Dennet) on the other, some early theologians were quite positive regarding Darwin's thoughts, eg Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, or Charles Kingsley, whom Darwin cited in the second edition of the Origin of Species (1860). In Germany, a positive reception of Darwin was difficult because of the monistic interpretation of the theory of evolution by Ernst Haeckel. Even in the nineteenth century, however, the fight against faith does not correspond to the thinking of the majority of scientists; "that was rather claimed by the opponents of science in order to attack them effectively." (Dietrich von Engelhardt).

A healthy caution against premature equations has been preserved in Germany even today, however, as a heritage of the fight of the Confessing Church against the Nazi regime. In rejecting a natural theology (as the source of the Church's proclamation), the "historical hour" of 1933 was clearly rejected, while adhering to the “one word of God”. God's utterances in the "Book of Nature" had to step back behind the clear testimony of the Bible.

As an heir of this argument, the statement of Karl Barth, the "Church Father of the 20th Century", can be understood: "There is free scope for natural science beyond what theology describes as the work of the Creator. And theology can and must move freely where science ... has its appointed limit." As liberating as this mutual demarcation is, it leaves open the question of how the relationship between theology and the natural sciences should be determined appropriately.


New challenges

A peaceful separation model of the two disciplines, for example, in which science answers the "How?" of the world's creation, theology the "Why?", seems outdated. The dialogue between science and theology thus reaches a new stage. After the influence of relativistic theoretical concepts (Kuhn, Polanyi et al.) led to a methodological convergence of the disciplines in the second half of the 20th century, many physicists soon found themselves obliged to ask metaphysical questions due to the profound findings of their science. This stimulated a new approach in conversation. At least since the 1980s, too, the ecological challenge ensured that the conversation did not ebb. New topics have been added since then: questions of bioethics, neuroethics, sometimes of "neurotheology" even if it is said that "God lives in the brain". Also, synthetic biology is under discussion, whether humankind is preparing to take over God's creative role. Overbearing presumption – or expression of its creation as co-creator? The spirits are divided. An important new stimulus for the dialogue between theology and the natural sciences is also to take greater account of the humanities and to translate the current dialogue into a “trialogue” in all three areas of academia.


On this websit​​​​e

On this website, we provide a first rough overview of the status of the discussion. Most of the website is in German, but there are several English contributions as well. There are topical articles, each dedicated to an important topic; those in English can be found here. On various topics academic texts (in German) have been prepared for events organized by the Protestant Academy in the Rhineland, which operates this website. The topic of theology and science is a very lively one, and this is reflected in our discussion forum, with a branch on Facebook. The press review provides information on current media coverage; it is partially in English. We are also happy to point out events on topic in any language. Finally, as an introduction to the conversation books plus English and German internet links are recommended. "About us" has information about who is behind this website (translated). We hope you enjoy browsing these pages!