Theology is meant to be the study of God. For those who regard the Bible (or some other religious text) to be the first and last word on God, theology is pretty straightforward, since you have only to look through your sacred scriptures to discover all there is to know about God.
For the more liberal-minded, however, theology becomes a bit more complicated, since the scriptures cannot be assumed, at face value, to be the one and only accurate guide to the nature of God. Liberal theologians have therefore tended to collect information from a number of sources, including personal experience, to determine what God must be like. Traditionally this approach to theology was called “natural theology”, as opposed to “dogmatic” or “doctrinal” theology. The aim of natural theology was to prove the existence of God and to identify his necessary attributes on the basis of facts collected from the natural world.
Since it is the job of the many branches of science to collect facts about the natural world, it would seem logical that science and theology would have their natural meeting point in the discipline of natural theology. However this has not proved a very fruitful meeting ground because of the fundamental differences between the way scientists and natural theologians tend to look at the world.
Natural theology does not, and cannot, start with the bare facts of nature and work from these towards an understanding of God. On the contrary, natural theology, as a discipline, is firmly grounded in a theological framework which starts with the premise of God and works backwards, as it were, to find evidence for God in the natural world.
Science, on the other hand, is not only starting from the other end — looking at the bare facts of nature and trying to build up piece by piece a comprehensive picture of the world from these bare facts. The whole enterprise of science is, in fact, an attempt to find explanations for why the world is the way it is which do not rely on the premise of God.
Of course there are exceptions, but in general scientists would never accept as an explanation for something the conclusion that “God made it so”. The last four hundred years of scientific investigation has been predicated on the assumption that there must be an alternative, and better, explanation than this. And if we don’t know what it is, then we must keep on looking until we find it.
So where lies the possibility of common ground between theology and science? Much has been made in recent years of how the “new physics” undermines the old mechanistic world-view of traditional science, thus making scientific endeavour more compatible with traditional religious assumptions. Some eminent scientists have even claimed that the origin of the universe cannot be explained scientifically without reference to God.
But historically the battle between science and theology has been very one-sided — science has steadily advanced and the “God of the gaps” has steadily retreated. It might well be the case that God is about to make a come-back. But those who hold out any hope of science finally coming round to a religious perspective on the world would do well to ponder on the nature and progress of science as a whole over these last few centuries.
Taken as a whole, science has built up a picture of the world and how it works which holds together with great coherence and predictive power. It is not just a matter of isolated facts and theories, many of which are still open to question and re-interpretation. Many of the most amazing feats of modern technology, like sending spaceships to the moon or building computers out of microchips, depend for their success on a large number of independent scientific discoveries.
The fact that these technologies have worked and continue to work is as much a vindication of the theories they depend on as any we could wish for. Yes, there are still many things we cannot explain, and no doubt many others for which our current explanation will be proved wrong. But the trend set by modern science is absolutely crystal clear.
The project of science has been to find natural explanations for things previously presumed to be the work of God. And so far it has been remarkably successful in doing so. Anyone who dwells on those things that science has not yet found a satisfactory explanation for, in the hopes that this will prove the limits of science and reveal the hand of God, is just asking, in the long run, to be overtaken by the march of science as surely as our predecessors who held out tenaciously against the scientific heresies of the past.
What, then, of theology? Science has already infiltrated all but the most fundamentalist religious institutions when it comes to biblical studies. Few biblical scholars nowadays treat the books of the bible as if they consisted of literal truths, handed down to us directly by God. Instead they study the bible as a collection of writings from a number of sources, which tell us a great deal about what those sources themselves believed about God. It is up to us to then decide whether what they believed about God makes sense or fits in with our own experience.
But at this point theologians have generally retreated into the defence of accepting certain theological propositions on faith, rather than on the basis of any commonly agreed body of evidence. And then, once these initial propositions are accepted, a systematic theology is built up around them, drawing from a number of different sources, but often relying quite heavily on the traditional theological ideas passed down through the centuries from Augustine, Aquinas et al.
A truly scientific theology would start from scientific premises about what we know about the world, and would steer well clear of the temptation to build any foundations on the sands of what science appears at the moment to be unable to answer. Therefore, a scientific theology would have to start from the theologically uncomfortable premise that there is no God. Only then would it be in a position to ask whether God could exist, and if so, what sort of God would it be and how would we know if and when such a God existed?
That would be the task of a scientific theology, and it might not be so barren an exercise as it may first appear from the initial premise. For there is one last frontier still to be penetrated by science, wherein lies the greatest hope for the discovery of God — the future.
And why should the future be such fertile ground for a scientific theology? It cannot be merely because science has not yet claimed it, or we would be in danger of falling into the trap mentioned above. Nor cannot it be because science is incapable of treading there, otherwise we could hardly speak about a scientific theology.
Science is certainly capable of monopolising what we know about the future just as much as it is of the present and the past. Indeed the attraction of science is largely based on its power to make successful predictions of the future behaviour of objects, based on a knowledge of their present behaviour and their past history. But in a general sense, the preoccupations of science are still very much with the origins of things rather than with their destinations.
The reason why a scientific theology would do well to look for the possibility of God in the future is that science as a whole by no means precludes such a possibility and may indeed point directly to it. And yet there is no branch of science specifically looking at this possibility or at the implications that would derive from it.
To put it very simply, the universe, as far as we know, has developed over the last 14 billion years or so from a single point of pure potential to the vast array of stars and planets and life forms and human culture that we have today. It is inconceivable from a purely scientific point of view to think that the forces which have so far created all this will not continue to create in the future.
And what does that mean? It must mean that there is at least a strong possibility that forms of existence still inconceivable to us now may develop in the future, and that these could include a being such as has been described through the ages as God.
We know that out of the spinning and whirling of infinitesimally small electrically-charged particles has come the possibility of atoms and molecules. And out of complex, twisted and contorted macromolecules with the ability to replicate themselves have come living cells. And out of microscopic buzzing, industrious cells performing all sorts of elementary tasks with absolute precision have come organisms as wonderful as human beings. And out of the ingenuity, imagination, intelligence and compassion of the human mind has come a host of cultural institutions, including religion, science, art, music, complex legal and political structures. Is it so outrageous to suppose that something we would want to call God could yet emerge out of all this?
The study of human culture from an evolutionary perspective positively cries out for a scientific theology. Where is humanity going? What choices do we have in the matter? Is there really an “end” to history, and if so, how would we know if we reached it? From a scientific study of the future possibility of God would emerge logical deductions about the attributes of such a God and testable hypotheses that might confirm or disconfirm contending theories. And at some point in the future such a science may no longer be focussed on the future but on the present. Might not a scientific theology actually help to hasten such a day by grounding people’s hopes and fears and expectations and beliefs on something much more solid than the beliefs of those who lived thousands of years ago?