The complex heuristic processes of discernment in common as the context for the tensions between faith and science

Today’s half yearly meeting of the EVKT, the Flemish section of the European Society for Catholic Theology, ESCT, addressed the tensions between faith, theology and science. Taede Smedes and Jürgen François did the presentations and provoked the discussions that followed. This is, of course, a very complex topic. Some ideas came to my mind during our conversation.

(a) It is already a complex matter in itself to describe historically the ups and downs of these tensions. Obviously, the Enlightenment plays an important role. Taede raised the question whether people as William Paley, by emphasizing God’s activity as a stop gap, occupying the terrain left open by unresolved but fascinating scientific issues, did not sell out the Christian faith, by narrowing down its scope and relevance. It would be interesting to compare with Michael Buckley’s book At the Origins of Modern Atheism, where the author indicates that out of a sincere desire to inculturate into the new scientific approach to the world, theologians and philosophers conveniently forgot about the relational features of the Christian faith. I particularly liked Taede’s analysis of the Enlightenment efforts to reach out for a commonly accepted understanding of societal life, opposing the diversities brought about by the various theological and philosophical approaches. Personally, I would like to emphasize the importance of these diversities, even amongst the sciences and concerning the understanding of what is meant by science and scientific methods … at least on the condition that these diversities enter into conversations with one another, so as to allow new perspectives on reality to emerge.

(b) The importance of the phenomenon of emergence was rightly emphasized by Jürgen, and I would like to link it with Karl Rahner’s insistence on Selbstüberbietung (self-transcending), a term he introduced precisely in the context of discussions on the importance of theories of evolution and the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Phenomena of emergence arise when parts of a whole link together in various relationships, resulting in “something” that is more than the sum of the constitutive parts. As human beings we “emerge” out of our various molecular parts that relate to one another through complex relationships that can be defined at various levels of complexity. This approach is important when debating the tensions between natural evolution and divine intervention, when attempting to understand both of these tensional poles.

(c) This is one of the reasons why I personally like to insist on relational ontologies and metaphysics, as well as on the relational aspects of the Christian faith and commitments (creation, incarnation, ecclesiogenesis, Kingdom of God, Trinity, to name but the most obvious relational concepts of Christian theologies). In these contexts, diversity is valued as precisely the encounters and conversations that take place on the basis of the diversity and how diversity weaves interrelationships – diversity is a necessity for the approach to reality. Diversity here also means that the components themselves evolve, e.g. understandings of what should be considered matters or arguments scientific or theological also evolve. Therefore, I will prefer to speak in the plural: sciences and theologies, instead of science and theology. These conversations that arise in diversity also mean that human thinking consists of processes of discernment (and, I would like to stress, of discernment in common, that generates communities and allows them to emerge as new actors).

(d) Therefore, I like Taede’s stress on the constitutive difference between science and faith, as different perspectives on reality. I would immediately add: this constitutive difference defines conversations and encounters that are crucial for our understanding and the constitution of reality. The differences are not just there, as if science and faith would exist next to one another, without real interactions (battleships that keep out of their respective waters, so to say); they are constitutive for reality and for a correct understanding of both science and faith. At least so I understand Taede’s use of the word constitutive.

(e) Sciences and theologies are human activities, and it is not surprising that the issue of the place and role of human beings was raised. Undoubtedly, in our universe, in creation as Christian theologians would say, human beings play a special and unique role. I think one can approach this from a very evolutionary perspective – it seems to me that this is one of the aspects that Jürgen wanted to underline (to really understand God’s activities in the world in relation to our understandings of reality, we have to admit the autogenerative capacities of reality) – as if in its evolutionary heuristics the world “gives” itself a reflexive capacity so as to allow the emergence of new and deeper creative processes. Human beings emerge out of natural processes as very special beings in reality (beings capable of reflection, of enjoying beauty, etc.). Nature takes a risk in this process: human beings can forget about their origins in an evolutionary process and about their relationships to the world, out of which they emerge; they can start considering themselves as separate from the world, as over against the world, and, therefore, as rulers and despots over the world. This leads to catastrophes, as we well know today (genocides, environmental crisis, etc.). Therefore, although I am willing to speak of anthropocentrism, I will always qualify it as relational anthropocentrism. For theologians, this is an interesting place to start speaking about God, the Creator who is both immanent and transcendent in nature and in human beings, who says “yes” in the creative dynamisms of the world and in particular of human beings, who also sets limits precisely by being present in reality. The latter, Latin American liberation theologians expressed by the expression “La tierra es al Señor”, the earth belongs to the Lord. I am also convinced there is a good place here to start discussing ontology and the meaning of the word “matter”.

(f) The hubris of anthropocentrism that doesn’t admit its relational embeddedness in the world (theologians will express this by claiming that creation is a gift) is connected, in some as yet not fully clarified ways, to the hubris of scientific rationality and of theism as exacerbated in the Enligthenment. If I understand him correctly, this is a point made by a philosopher who participated in the discussions – I would add to this also the subject or identity oriented perspectives that take subjects and identities as the core ontological building blocks to which are added (as by accidents) relations. To him, the real question now concerns the very understanding of thinking – not so much of science or theology – and the ways in which in those processes of thinking God enters into thinking. Epistemological issues are crucial here, as Martin Heidegger has emphasized: theism and scientific rationalism run loose when they are nothing more than the search to explain reasons and causes. It is time to rediscover – I continue to quote the philosopher – the importance of metaphysics in a way that could not be understood precisely by Martin Heidegger.

(g) One point of view expressed by Taede also struck me very much – I connected it with some of the concerns that Roger Burggraeve had voiced in his talk to which I referred a few days ago. In the tensions between faith and science, and in the understanding given to scientific rationality, political issues about how we build up and en-vision our societies and lives together, are also at stake. We are not just talking about the opposition between science and faith, the field is far greater and concerns issues of our lives together and of our understanding of who we ourselves are. Science and faith can only be understood in the context of that broader conversation in which our understanding of science and faith themselves is constantly redefined in heuristic processes of common discernment.

All of this resulted in a very fruitful discussion, although some of us may feel very frustrated in view of the task ahead. Personally, I think we should not as theologians allow ourselves to have the battlefield defined by those who see oppositions between science and faith, but we should point to the fruitful creativity and opportunities for emergence in the diversity between scientific and faith rationalities, including also those rationalities that express our concerns about how we desire or attempt to build up our societal life, or our lives together. These relational approaches to me are crucial today. All to often, we remain the prisoners of subject and identity oriented thought and perspectives.


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