Science and Theology

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?

Evolution of God

The Evolution of Heaven and Earth


God did not create the Heavens and the Earth and all that is in them. Everything that exists and that ever has existed has been created by the most marvellous process of evolutionary development. This has required no God, no external source of creative power, no foreknowledge of what was to come or pre-determination of what direction evolution might take. The evolutionary process is a blind, natural process of trial and error which creates variation and fills every nook and cranny of the universe with whatever variations can survive in that particular nook and cranny at that particular time. The constant flow of this process means constantly shifting environments into which constantly new forms must adapt. This amazing but un-miraculous process over billions of years has created all the beauties of the natural world, including human beings, our brains, and our abilities to manipulate the natural world and make our own human landscapes and creations, cultures and institutions.


But the evolutionary process, inexorable though it is, is not the only fundamental process at work in the universe. More fundamental than the creative process that constantly creates variety and fills every available niche with varieties most suited to it is the process of decay and destruction – entropy – the winding down and dissipation of the universe. Evolution is by far the more improbable of the two processes. Most of the time the response to variety and new forms is their death, destruction, decay, extinction. Only very rarely do new forms survive to create new possibilities for yet newer forms of existence.


Evolution has succeeded because in the long run, even the most improbable can happen, and over billions of years, it has! But with the advent of human beings onto the scene, the future of evolution is no longer certain. We are conscious agents, created by evolution, but able to consciously direct the evolutionary process from now on. We can choose and we do so at every juncture in our lives, whether to take the creative, evolutionary path forward, of the destructive, entropic path backward.


Human beings learned many thousands of years ago how to hinder and obstruct the evolutionary process in order to sustain a status quo which benefited one or other group within society. So instead of allowing the flowering of thousands of diverse human cultures, each suited to different geographical niches around the world and from whom each might learn for our mutual benefit, humans set about massacring and annihilating each other, enforcing mono-cultural dominance over others and systematically seeking out and destroying all that is new or different.


This pattern of destruction and repression has held back, and continues to hold back, our evolutionary development as a species. With the advent of nuclear weapons, we now have the capability of reversing the evolutionary process not just back to the stone age, but back to the origins of life itself. Nuclear weapons are themselves a destructive force which turns matter back i9nto the energy from whence it came many billions of years ago.


With our capabilities and predilection for destruction, it is hard to see how human beings can regain the evolutionary upper hand, and move forward to the next step in the evolutionary process. It is by no means a given that this will happen, since the course of evolution is now in the hands of human beings and we can choose to destroy ourselves and all that has been created by the evolutionary process thus far. But there is the possibility – the rare hope – that we will forego our entropic tendencies and choose the creative, evolutionary path. Because we are conscious agents we must consciously choose this path. And “we” means the whole human race! For so long as a few are bent on destruction and domination, and are not kept in check by the rest, they will always achieve the upper hand, since in the short term, entropy and destruction are the easier and more effective options. (It is far easier to destroy a civilisation that to create one)


But what if the human race chooses evolution? Chooses cooperation, tolerance, diversity, creativity, each developing according to their own potential into their various niches, in symbiotic relationship with each other? The evolutionary process which has created the universe and all that is in it suggests that the possibilities for future evolution are unlimited! Evolution has reached the point where conscious agents – ourselves – can direct its course. If we choose to work together to further the evolutionary process what might come next? For evolution does not stop of its own accord. It is an unremitting process of constant change, and human consciousness is just one step along the road. The future is unknown and unknowable, but the evolutionary process to date suggests that if human beings were to learn cooperation and symbiosis to a sufficient extent, a new level of evolutionary existence would come into being – a supra-human being with powers a quantum leap beyond what our consciousness has create. That supra-human being would be us – functioning in unison to actually become something beyond us.


Is it justifiable to call that supra-human Being that our cooperative efforts in the evolutionary direction could create – “God”? Would not that Being be very much like the concept of God which religions through the ages have tried to describe? A God who is above and beyond our merely human life, who somehow “knows” and controls our lives just as we control the cells in our bodies? From a careful study of the evolutionary process of “hierarchical integration” which has created our consciousness from a collection of nerves, our bodies from a collection of cells, complex macromolecules from a collection of atoms, and complex atoms from a collection of sub-atomic particles, we may learn a great deal about the possibilities of god and the nature of that God. It is unlikely that such a God would be similar in many details to the God of Jesus or Mohammed or Moses. But it could be that the inspiration for the great religions – and the experiences people have had, and continue to have, of the “spiritual” realm, and of “God” – are in fact glimpses, not of the pre-existent God who created the Heavens and the Earth – but of the God-who-is-to-come, the god that will be created when human beings become one in their endeavours for a cooperative world order, and which perhaps has been created wherever people have become one and sensed a power beyond themselves, binding them together.


But this new god requires a new theology and a new religion, for it is not a God of punishment and retribution, or sin and salvation. It is a God of evolutionary potential – a God which would carry our human possibilities onto the next plane of evolutionary development – which must be interstellar interactions with being on other planets in this vast complex of hundreds of billions of solar systems which make up our universe.


In the meantime, our aim as human beings is clear – we must work for the kingdom of God on Earth – the creation of one world, each person fulfilling their potential in harmony with others, not as automatons in a vast socialist super-state, but as fully conscious, self-aware individuals voluntarily cooperating to reach our own full potential in conjunction with each other.


To create such a world, we need to recognise our oneness and the true meaning of life and our purpose in the grand scheme of evolution. We need to work together to build a world which values tolerance, diversity, creativity and coooperation. And collectively we need to rid the world of despots, dictators, terrorists and every threat that prevents the delicate flowering of the human evolutionary potential.

Religious Experience and Theological Interpretation

William James, in his lectures on the “Varieties of Religious Experience”, helped to pave the way towards an understanding of religious experience quite apart from religious dogmas, religious rituals, religious symbols and all the rest that goes with religion. For James, it was the individual experiences which people claimed to have which made religion a valid and interesting subject to discuss.

But it seems totally outside our nature in the West to experience something without trying to interpret it, define it, compare it with other experiences. Pure experience is something that Eastern religions try to attain, but even there it is perhaps a heavily interpreted experience that counts as pure experience.

For what is pure experience? We can’t even talk about it without giving names to it and trying to explain it in words and symbols. It is inevitable that the words and symbols we use to describe our experience are those words and symbols we are familiar with in our culture or philosophical system.

It is foolhardy and quite unnecessary to deny anyone their valid claim to have an experience — religious experience or any other kind of experience. Experience is by definition individual and subjective, and we can never fully know what someone else’s experience is like. We can only guess and assume that their experience is similar to our own, but if they claim to have an experience which sounds like nothing we have experienced, who are we to dismiss it as a valid experience for them?

There are undoubtedly non-valid claims of experience mixed in with the valid ones. The world is full of people with mental illnesses of all kinds, many of whom claim the most extraordinary experiences and powers, which if they can in any sense be “true” experiences, they are true only in the sense that they take place entirely in the mind of the person concerned. Many psychologists have wanted to place all claims of religious experience in this category and thus dispense with them altogether as objective phenomena. But the fact is that a large number of otherwise apparently sane people have claimed such experiences, as evidenced by the work of James and many others. Even if it were true that they merely represent a class of psychological phenomena not qualitatively different from delusions and dementias of the mentally ill, we would still be bound to take them seriously if such a large number of people seem to have them.

But the experience and the interpretation of that experience are two very different things. We are under no obligation whatsoever to accept at face value or at any value the claims that go along with religious experiences, such as the claim that the experience one had was of direct communion with the living Christ, or with a dead relative, or that it was an experience of the love of God, or of God’s power, or an intimation into the future, or into a previous life.

These are very common sorts of explanations given by people who have claimed to have religious experiences. But they are already one step removed from the experience itself. Even if the experience was extremely visual and/or audible, in the sense that people feel they saw figures and heard words spoken to them, it is still impossible to accept that these are representative of pure experience and not the personal interpretation of that experience. Words are only heard in the language and vocabulary available to the person hearing them, and likewise visual images.

But even if we accept a certain amount of interpretation at this level as belonging legitimately to the experience, beyond this primitive level of interpretation are the layers of interpretation grounded in the culture and worldview of the person. Many religious experiences involve an experience interpreted as an experience of God, but noone can experience the sort of attributes commonly associated with God in those experiences, such that God is “almighty” or “eternal” or giving of “unconditional love”. Separating out these doctrinal concepts from the experiences which give rise to them or purport to validate them is difficult, but essential if we are to have a better understanding of religious experience as well as of whatever reality they are an experience of.

It should be fairly obvious, for instance, that noone has ever had an experience that could possibly be a direct experience of God as the “creator” of the world, and yet this theological precept is very often bound up with people’s interpretation of their religious experience. It could well be that whatever “god” people have legitimately experienced is not the creator of the world at all. In fact such a god — or gods — may bear no resemblance at all to the traditional Christian or other religious doctrines which define what theologians expect God to be.

I myself had an intense and powerful religious experience when I was 19. I felt I was being engulfed by the power and love of God and could see my whole life stretching before me. I felt I heard God telling me to drop everything else in my life and go into the ministry. There were undoubtedly strong psychological factors involved in my having that experience at that particular time. I was lonely and confused, desperate to find what it was I was meant to be doing with my life. The experience quite literally changed my life, although not entirely as God seemed to intend. I was admitted to a theological college and began a training for the ministry. But after two years of training and apprenticeship as a minister’s assistant, I became very disillusioned with the traditional churches and scurried back home to Quakerism. It took several more years for the experience to wear off in the sense that I could think about religion without going through the filter of that single experience.

I have never had another experience quite like that one, and certainly not one I would have defined at the time as a religious experience. And yet I think now that is largely due to the interpretation I put on the event, setting it apart from other experiences in a fundamental way. I have heard voices telling me what I should do on many occasions, but I have interpreted these as being the voice of my conscience rather than the voice of God speaking to me. I have been on mountaintops and viewed sunsets and heard music and seen paintings which have certainly given me the same feelings of being overwhelmed by beauty and power and love, but I have not interpreted these as being an experience of the beauty and power and love of God. In fact, the more I have come to recognise the essential similarities of all sorts of powerful experiences, the more I realise that that religious experience I had all those years ago was not so very different. What was different was the interpretation I gave to that experience.

I am now at a point in my spiritual journey where I no longer believe any of the old religious certainties with which I was brought up as a Quaker and subsequently studied as a theology student. I certainly do not believe in God as the creator, because I am currently immersed in the modern theories of evolution and cosmology which I believe have profound and important implications in almost all areas of life. In fact I don’t believe in the existence of God at all, in the normal sense of the word. And yet I do not deny my or anybody else’s experience of what they conceive to be God.

My own way around the paradox that presents is to understand God as an emergent power in the universe, something that is still evolving and perhaps not yet fully in existence, rather than the pre-existent creator of it all. I believe such a theory of God is fully consistent with what we know about evolution and cosmology. And furthermore I believe such an emergent God can explain the objective reality of religious experience.

Quakers believe there is “that of God” within all of us. Just as there must have been “that of life” in some organic macromolecules in order for life to emerge from those molecules, so there would have to be that of God in human beings if God were to emerge from us. Indeed it is assumed that in the thick pre-biotic soup out of which life emerged on this planet, there would have been countless attempts over a billion years or more to create what finally became the first living cell — hemi, demi and semi-cells that never made it, but were the precursors and the patterns out of which life developed.

So is it so surprising to think that evolution, which has created all the most amazing wonders of the universe, will not stop at human beings and human consciousness and all the wonders that make up human culture, but will go on? And would it be so surprising to think that whatever came next — whatever form of existence it might be to follow on from matter, life and consciousness, a super-human organism that somehow engulfed the whole of planet with super-consciousness and power — that we might want to call such a thing “God”? And if such a God were in the process of evolving right now, would it not be expected that people would sense it, experience little twinges now and again of what might come into existence? And might it even explain the whole phenomenon of religion, which is so pervasive in human society and yet so contradictory with the facts of nature as we have been discovering them over the last few hundred years?

Ironically, it may not be the traditional religious precepts and theologies but science that becomes our best guide to understanding such a God and the meanings that lie behind religious experiences of such a God. For it is in the study of the macro-evolutionary processes that have brought the universe to where it is today that we can catch glimpses and insights of what may speed or impede the evolution of God.