Michael Welker: Top Topics in the Science and Theology Dialogue – From a Personal European Theological Perspective
In the last 30 years the science and theology dialogue was strongly developed in the Anglo-American world. In his book “Science and Theology: The New Consonance” (1998) Ted Peters brought together 13 voices of this dialogue and characterized the field by identifying four different phases of it: first, the method phase, second, the physics phase, third, the biology phase, and forth, the theology phase. I entered this dialogue in the second, the physics phase, or rather near its end, that is in the transition from the physics to the biology phase.
I had already observed what became known as the method phase, a phase very much shaped by the work of Ian Barbour. His impact can best be grasped through his Gifford Lectures 1989-1991, “Religion in an Age of Science,” volume 1 (1990). In this book, Barbour describes four ways of relating science and religion: the methods of conflict, of independence, of dialogue and of integration. He speaks of models and paradigms, he characterizes 20th century developments in physics, astronomy and biology, and he evaluates meta-theories developed for the dialogue. Barbour’s work is a pioneering work, and one of my doctoral students, a physicist and theologian, wrote his dissertation on Ian Barbour’s writings: Christian Berg, “Theology in the Age of Technology: The Oeuvre of Ian Barbour as a Contribution to the Relation of Theology to Science and Technology,” (2002). However, since I did not see enough substantial theological results of this meta-discourse, the method phase did not really encourage me to invest much energy and concentration into it.
In other words, what was the specific outcome of this meta-dialogue for either theology or science? In my view, the method phase was a warming-up phase, a preparatory phase for a new approach after times of mutual ignorance, mutual fear and the longing for mutual independence. On German grounds, there had been more interest in the dialogue even as early as the first decades of the 20th century. But all this seemed to me to have gone stale, since Germany did not produce geniuses like Alfred North Whitehead, that is, persons creatively active in interdisciplinary work relating science and religion. To be sure, some cooperation was generated and some institutions were founded, for instance the Heidelberg FEST, established in 1957/58, and at first clumsily called the “Research Location of the Protestant Community of Studies. An Institute for Interdisciplinary Research.” Here, as early as 1987, the biologist Jürgen Hübner published a bibliography: “The Dialogue Between Theology and Science,” a book of 520 pages. But all these efforts of the FEST did not seem to produce innovative systematic results of this dialogue. When I, during my time as the director at the International Scientific Forum of the University of Heidelberg at the end of the nineties, initiated a conference on models of the science and religion discourse, the contribution of the Heidelberg FEST, according to Hübner, was rather poor. They had mainly concentrated on historical models of this dialogue.
There was a completely different climate at the CTI (Center of Theological Inquiry) in Princeton, where Dan Hardy had started a multi-year international and interdisciplinary discourse on science and theology. This kind of climate also characterized the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, where Robert Russell, together with members of the Vatican Observatory Research Group in Italy and Arizona, had started a fascinating multi-year project of cooperation and research. “Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding” (1988) was the title of the first of many impressive volumes, to which John Paul II contributed an insightful introduction. A key person in the fruitful regeneration of this dialogue and the shaping of the physics phase was John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne had taught at Trinity College of Cambridge University as a mathematical physicist. In his forties, he decided to study theology and to become a pastor. Soon, Cambridge called him back and eventually asked him to become the president of Queens’ College. Polkinghorne wrote and published several small books on science and theology, books which not only stimulated fellow academics, but also broader publics. One of his most impressive books are his Gifford Lectures, published as: “The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker” (1994), in which he presents reflections on the Nicene Creed with the mind and the eyes of a physicist and scientist – a most fascinating book indeed.
In 1991, after years as a professor at the universities of Tübingen and Münster in Germany, I accepted an offer from the University of Heidelberg. Five years later the president of the University of Heidelberg asked me, in addition to my chair of Systematic Theology, to become the director of the IWH (Internationales Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg), the International Academic or Scientific Forum of the University of Heidelberg, a research institution, founded on the occasion of the university’s 600th anniversary. In this institution the university hosts 50 to 70 international and interdisciplinary research events per year. Despite this double responsibility here and at the faculty, the university tolerated my participation in international interdisciplinary research activities abroad, and, from time to time, even granted me leave to go to the United States as a guest professor or a consultant scholar.
Does God Act in the Physical World?
In the early 1990ies, I participated in a consultation at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, the CTI. The general topic was “The Science and Theology Dialogue on God and Divine Agency.” We were only three or four theologians or philosophers of religion, but about ten theologically or religiously interested scientists. For a whole day the scientists talked about the vast spatio-temporal dimensions of the universe. Were really 13.8 billion years needed to bring this cosmos and the world about? Their answer was: Yes, so much time was needed to bring about the star systems that had to turn to dust again in order to produce the stardust out of which we are all made. One colleague pointed out the wonder that we as humans exist as follows: Imagine that you are condemned to death. Your eyes are blinded. Twelve sharp shooters shoot at you – but no bullet hits you. You could say: This was just a miracle. But you could want to find out. They then turned to us, the theologians, and said: We want you to take your resources and particularly the biblical canon as seriously as we take our material. And they made it clear that they did not want to be given general metaphysical God thought.
We then talked about creation, we talked about the differentiation of heaven and earth, and we talked about divine creativity. There was a shared excitement among us, but there was also the feeling that we were operating on very different shores or on different islands. We saw that we needed more specified common topic and we chose: “God and Time”. After one year, we came together again, with a short three- to five-page position paper from each of us. The discussion was equally fruitful, but we saw that the topic was still too broad. So we selected: God, temporality and contingency – and met again after one year. The director of the Center did not press us to go for a publication, but rather to cultivate a good discourse. This turned out to have been a mistake, when the leadership of the center changed and our fine project was canceled by authorities in the background. Fortunately, John Polkinghorne and I could convince the new leader, Wallace Alston, to start a new project of the science and theology dialogue. This multi-year project on eschatology was extremely successful. We published it in 2000 as “The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology,” and we sold 3800 copies already in the first year. A Korean translation by Joon Ho Shin was published as early as 2002, and a Chinese translation came out in 2010. This project stimulated more research on topics of eschatology, particularly on the topic of the resurrection. Ted Peters, Robert Russell and I organized a research project on “Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments” (2002).
Truly Interdisciplinary Dialogue
Much earlier, in 1991, I had been invited to give the Princeton Warfield Lectures, and I decided to lecture on creation topics, “Creation and Reality”. From various angles, I wanted to show that the biblical texts about creation are no fairy tales, that they do not offend scientific worldviews. But I did not yet seek the direct contact with scientific inquiries. – Only after I had done a lot of research on the divine spirit and in the area of anthropology – both of which helped me to expand a merely naturalistic and scientistic worldview – was I able to contribute to the dialogue in new forms. In 2012, the dialogue with Orthodox theologians led to the publication of a book on “The Spirit in Creation and New Creation”. In the same year, I published a small book with my Yale Taylor Lectures held in 2009, entitled “The Theology and Science Dialogue: What Can Theology Contribute?” The book closes with a chapter on processes of discovery in science and theology and is dedicated to John Polkinghorne.
The cooperation with John Polkinghorne has been a very strong element in my work in the area of science and theology. In many projects we worked together, we edited books together, and we wrote a more popular book together, “Faith of the Living God: A Dialogue”. It was published in 2001 in English and also came out in German and in Chinese. – Our long cooperation was also documented in a big consultation with 60 scholars, held in Heidelberg in order to celebrate 25 years of the work of the John Templeton Foundation and the 100th anniversary of its founder. “The Science and Religion Dialogue: Past and Future” was published 2012; lectures and some of the discussions of this conference are also available in the internet. On the whole, it can be stated that the John Templeton Foundation has been one of the main sponsors of the dialogue between science and theology. It sponsored many one-shot events in the framework of its so-called “Humble Approach Initiative,” directed by Dr. Mary Ann Meyers. I myself organized and directed two projects within this framework, namely two dialogues on the work of the Spirit, one with the first generation of academically interested Pentecostal theologians, and one that I mentioned earlier, with Orthodox colleagues from Russia and Greece. Both of these projects were no direct contributions to the science and theology dialogue, but they had strong elements of it in the publications.
A documentation of the vast breadth and wealth of this dialogue is the “Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science” (2006) with its more than 1000 pages. I also contributed to this publication. In this context it should be mentioned that the power of the religion and science dialogue inspired further dialogues, not only with the Pentecostals and the Orthodox, but also with Muslim scholars. A multi-year dialogue between Christians and Muslims orchestrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury under the title “Building Bridges Seminar” concerned itself in one year with the relation of science and religion (2012).
In my view, the most fruitful area of this dialogue has been the area of anthropology. At the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, we organized several consultations. Colleagues in England, in Scotland and at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California (CTNS) focus on this area of anthropological topics. – About nine years ago, we created the FIIT, the Forschungszentrum Internationale und Interdisziplinäre Theologie, The Research Center International and Interdisciplinary Theology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. The topics of the 13 research units present in this Center demonstrate that the dialogue between theology and science is relevant to many areas of cooperation. The highlight of our research on anthropology was a multi-year project which was only recently published (2014): “The Depth of the Human Person: A Multidisciplinary Approach”. Here we questioned dualized and dualistic anthropologies (for instance, mind-body, spirit-body) and learned greatly from the fascinating anthropology of St. Paul (flesh – body – heart – soul – conscience – reason – spirit) which offers a fantastic basis for a multidisciplinary dialogue. In connection with the so-called excellence initiative, which rated Heidelberg at the top of all German universities, we generated more projects on embodied cognition, on the networks of relations between body, spirit and culture.
Another very successful project was a multi-year dialogue between science and theology, this time with the addition of legal studies. We dealt with concepts of law in the different fields and published the book “Concepts of Law in the Sciences, Legal Studies, and Theology” (2013). The results of the project encouraged us to plan a new initiative on the topics “event, evidence and proof.” It remains to be seen how this adventure of ideas develops.
Published October 2015
Dr. theol. Dr. phil. Dres. h.c. Michael Welker is senior professor for systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg; director of the Research Center International and Interdisciplinary Theology (Forschungszentrum Internationale und Interdisziplinäre Theologie, FIIT) Heidelberg; member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and the Finnish Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Welker has been multiple times visiting professor, inter alia at Princeton Theological Seminary; Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton; Harvard Divinity School; Cambridge Divinity School, UK; Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University.
More than 300 publications in scientific journals and books, author and editor of over 50 books, translated in many languages.
- Michael Welker © Heidelberg University
- John Polkinghorne
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- Cover of Michael Welker, The Theology and Science Dialogue, Neukirchen 2012
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