William H. King was Lutheran campus pastor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, at the time this article was written.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 2-9, 1986, pp. 611-614. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
King addresses the long-standing differences between theology and science by suggesting ways pastors can reach out to scientists by understanding scientific method and philosophy, as well as by emphasizing the common ground both share, and by suggesting alternative ways of conceptualizing reality that are complementary and not antithetical.nding differences between theology and science by suggesting ways pastors can reach out to scientists by understanding scientific method and philosophy, as well as by emphasizing the common ground both share, and by suggesting alternative ways of conceptualizing reality that are complementary and not antithetical
Like many other pastors, I received a formal education that was rich in the humanities
and spiced a bit by the social sciences -- particularly the subjects related to the helping
professions. But the natural sciences were, like green vegetables, endured in small
helpings and seldom savored. Indeed, I suspect that most pastors have only a minimal
understanding or appreciation of the natural sciences. Though our attitudes toward the
sciences may range from benign condescension to outright hostility, we rarely feel
compelled to broaden our awareness in this area in order to minister or theologize more
Yet I have become convinced that pastors must reach out to scientists and must increase
their ability to understand and speak in the context of the natural sciences. For if we
presume that the gospel addresses the destiny of all creation, we do well to understand
the tools that reveal that creation. Moreover, many of the great religious and ethical
issues of our day are rooted in the world of science and technology. The dilemmas of
euthanasia, the wonders of genetic engineering, the mixed blessings of atomic energy,
the obscenity of environmental pollution, the depletion of natural resources -- all of
these concerns are legacies of a scientific culture. If religious people are to have a voice
in determining the uses of knowledge, we must have a rudimentary understanding of the
values, perspectives and methods that placed these issues in our culture's lap.
Furthermore, and perhaps most important, we minister within a society heavily
influenced by science and its methods of seeking truth. At the university where I
minister, I am continually struck by the dominance of science and engineering; often it
is to students in these disciplines that I attempt to communicate the glorious, yet often
subtle, mystery of the gospel. If preaching and teaching are to be meaningful to these
persons, we must find ways either to speak within their frame of reference or to expand
their frame of reference to include our own. With that need in mind, I would like to
suggest some themes that offer points of contact between the worlds of science and
The quest for intelligibility. In the popular mind, the essence of science is
experimentation, which produces data observable to the senses. But though science
does indeed rely on empirical methods of research, and though scientists may regard
empirical data as the only relevant kind, empirical research is only the means, not the
goal, of science. The raison d'etre of science is not the generation of data but the
attainment of intelligibility. Scientists look for patterns that relate one bit of sensory
data to another, and it is these patterns of intelligibility which constitute reality, not the
data themselves. Most of modern physics, for example, points toward a structure of
reality that cannot be visualized, or described in standard language. But the insights of
physics are "true" or "real" because with them the behavior of matter becomes
Understanding science as the search for the intelligible is significant, because it
suggests that science and religion share the same ultimate goal -- to give intelligibility
to the world and human experience. Religion does not use empirical methodology with
anything like the rigor of science, but it does seek in its own way to make human
experience intelligible. What is love? What is the destiny of humanity? What is
humanity's status in the universe? Why do the innocent suffer? Why must we die? These
are questions that prompt us to seek intelligibility. They are also questions that
empirical methodology cannot answer.
If science and religion really are mutually exclusive ways of gaining intelligibility, one
would expect religious fervor to wane in places where scientific inquiry is highly
valued. But that does not seem to be the case. At our major universities, for example,
there is currently a resurgence of conservative evangelical and charismatic religious
groups. There is a multitude of reasons for this trend, but the strength of these groups,
many of which make virtually no concessions to the scientific mind-set, suggests at the
very least that students are not finding sufficient intelligibility in the laboratory.
Some might say that it is not the budding scientists and engineers who are fueling the
religious resurgence. Yet, in my experience, this group is often two or three times more
heavily involved in religious activity than is the university population as a whole. The
students who are most aware of what scientific tools can reveal appear to have some
awareness of those tools' limitations.
This phenomenon should remind us that theology, if it is to be taken seriously, must
effectively address the deepest human concerns about meaning and value. As George K.
Schweitzer told a group of campus pastors, "The problem of science and religion is not
an intellectual one. The 'scientific' critique of religion can be answered so that religion
is not unreasonable. In the popular mind there is, however, a difference of credibility.
The problem is that science is good at what it does, explaining the physical world;
religion does not seem to be nearly as effective at its task."
The strength of conservative religion among students in the sciences may also suggest,
however, that there is a tendency for people to compartmentalize reality. Among the
students with whom I minister, I sense very few ethical qualms or even questions
regarding the use of science and technology. They look to religion primarily for
personal support, a sense of belonging, and hope for the future. Their faith has little or
no impact on vocational plans. Thus, ministers are called to walk a difficult tightrope:
without forgetting that religion offers a different kind of intelligibility than science
does, we must refuse to allow faith to become privatized. The intelligibility we offer
must include a discernment of how science can be most humanely employed.
Except in the minds of fundamentalists, religion has long since stopped trying to lend
intelligibility to nature in the way science does. And science seems to be recognizing
the limitations of its methodology -- its inability to give intelligibility to all of what
humanity experiences. Once we accept the fact that the quest for intelligibility requires
many tools, perhaps we can allow the scientific saw and the religious hammer to pursue
the common goal of understanding.
The limits of conceptual networks. Arthur Eddington tells a parable about a zoologist
who decided to study deep-sea life using nets with a two-inch mesh. After repeatedly
lowering his nets and studying what was caught, he concluded that there was no fish in
the sea smaller than two inches.
The story humorously illustrates the importance of recognizing the relationship of
epistemology and ontology. If we assume that only that which is known by sensory
observation is real, we are fishing with a certain size mesh, which may or may not
apprehend all of reality. Conversely, if we assume that reality consists only of the
physical universe, we will accept as valid only those methods of knowing that
investigate sensory data.
Langdon Gilkey and Stephen Toulmin have forcefully argued that science,
understandably invigorated by its success in comprehending the physical world, has
tried to extend itself beyond its methodological capabilities. For example, the theory of
evolution, which offered an explanation of the development of biological
characteristics, was presented as a naturalistic philosophy of history, which presumed to
speak of the nature and destiny of humanity. That philosophy may or may not be true; it
is an opinion not testable by empirical methods.
There is, of course, nothing deplorable about the fact that science has limits, any more
than it is a failing of the biblical creation narratives that they shed no light on the
structure of DNA. An essential part of critical thinking is deliberately to exclude certain
factors from the field of study. The key word is "deliberately"; it is essential that
scientists and theologians be aware of their tools' limitations -- that they are aware of
the sorts of questions that are beyond the scope of their inquiry. The dialogue between
theology and science is always least productive when one side is imperialistic in the
claims it makes for its methodology.
The role of imagination and metaphor. The importance of metaphor and story in
contemporary theology is well known. Instead of seeing the theological task as that of
mining eternal gems of dogma, recent biblical critics and theologians have been
concerned with how biblical images function in a given context, and with the range of
meanings that metaphors have for the reader. As Jesus' own frequent use of parables
suggests, we are incapable of encapsulating the divine reality in theological
propositions; we are able to speak only by analogy.
In the popular mind, it is just this inability to speak with absolute precision that
separates religion from science. While theologians must deal with images, scientists, it
is thought, are concerned with the "bare facts." While the theologian must say that God
(or sin or grace) "is like" such and such, the scientist can say "salt is sodium and
chlorine combined in this way."
This language difference can be a stumbling block for persons trained in the sciences.
Shortly after becoming a campus pastor, I was involved in an undergraduate Bible study
on one of the "light" passages in John's Gospel. I asked the group to think about what
the image of light conveyed to them. The students noted that light is something that
reveals, exposes and judges, or gives hope and comfort. "But which meaning is the right
one?" asked a computer science major. "They're all true," I replied; "taken together they
enrich the image." "But one of them has to be the idea the writer intended," he
persisted. "When I write a program, each of the symbols means one thing that I want it
to mean. I want to know what John's symbol stands for." Clearly that student was most
comfortable in the world of mathematics, where symbols do not have shades of
Those of us who wrestle with multifaceted biblical images may envy the clarity of
scientific terms. But science is more dependent on creative imagination and metaphor
than we might think. A number of philosophers have suggested that science cannot be
concerned only with "bare facts," for all data come to the observer within a context of
assumptions which are not provable by the immediate data. To measure the amount of a
gas given off by a solution, for example, one must assume certain "laws" concerning the
behavior of gas. These laws are abstractions from experience which have been shown to
yield a high rate of correlation among data.
Most of the data cited in the theory of evolution were available long before Darwin's
time. Scientific progress was made only when he created a context, a theory, around the
notion of natural selection. This was as much a creative act as the writing of a
symphony or the painting of a picture. The really significant moment for the scientist,
as for the poet, is when he or she finds a new way to speak of what is familiar, creating
a new context for understanding.
The use of metaphor and imagination in science is also evident in its use of models.
Most of us have made models of atoms using Tinker Toys and styrofoam balls. In
textbooks the action of electrons in chemical reactions is pictured as little balls jumping
out of one orbit and into another. Nothing like these Tinker-Toy atoms or those orbiting
balls actually exists, of course, but the models are not false for that reason. They lend
intelligibility to the physical world and are in that sense true.
In both science and religion, then, language is constantly used to speak of a reality that
is beyond the capacity of language to express. But even as theologians insist on the
significance of metaphor and the importance of the imagination in creating contexts of
meaning, they can also benefit from the scientific concern for making language as
precise as possible. All who are involved in biblical preaching or teaching have at one
time or another been guilty of taking a text out of context. We should not impose on a
biblical image just any meaning we happen to find comfortable or helpful. The context
and the overall thrust of Scripture impose limits on interpretation. If the cost of lacking
imagination in interpretation is spiritual sterility, the price of unfettered license is a
faith so mushy that it means nothing in particular.
A professor once said to me, "Sometimes I wonder why some of you preachers bother
going to seminary. By the time you finish explaining a passage, it's reduced to terms
from other disciplines." That is the voice of someone who has been confused about how
his faith differs from other theories he can hear on campus. And indeed, what unique
insights can ministers bring to a discussion if every humanity-affirming action is termed
"incarnational" or "sacramental," and every social cause is judged "prophetic"? Only
when the significance of Christian images is clear will they be accorded serious
consideration. We cannot and need not make the products of theological imagination
subject to empirical verification, but we can at least be clear about what our insights
The idea of continuous creation. Luther's exposition of the first article of the creed
begins, "I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and
still [my emphasis] sustains my body and soul" (The Book of Concord, edited by
Theodore G. Tappert [Fortress, 1959], p. 344). Luther understood creation as an
ongoing activity of God, and he was certainly not the only theologian to do so. But in
practice the church has usually treated creation simply as the initial event in history, the
moment that God brought order out of chaos. That focus has greatly complicated the
relations between science and religion. If God were simply the means of getting the
world started, a post-Newtonian mind would have no need of God to understand the
workings of nature.
A renewed emphasis on creation as a continuing process is thus essential if a fruitful
dialogue between religion and science is to take place. The work of Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin, the process theologians and some feminist theologians has suggested ways that
religion can focus on God's activity of bringing new reality into being. This brand of
theology will focus less on God's transcendence and more on God's co-creation with
humanity. It will contain a greater willingness to tolerate randomness in the universe,
regarding it as the means by which God works through the infinite possibilities of the
cosmos. The benefit of this approach will be that the explanations of science, instead of
being an alternative to God, can be regarded as clues to the processes of divine creation.
It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that the most significant meeting place
for science and religion is the Olympian heights of academic discourse. I believe,
rather, that the most crucial dialogue on the issue is not conducted at professional
meetings between scholars but daily in the public areas of our society, as persons
influenced by scientific perspectives consider the claims of religious faith. Indeed, the
conflict between science and religion is best seen as a pastoral issue.
Obviously, one of the first things a pastor can do is -- as has been suggested -- to
emphasize the ground that religion and science share. Pastors can acknowledge and
affirm the sense of mystery that the scientist experiences, and suggest that it is this
same sense of mystery that undergirds the religious quest as well. Second, pastors can
offer alternative ways of viewing the world. At the college level today, those trained in
sciences and engineering usually gain little exposure to nonempirical ways of knowing.
Even basic English courses are being replaced by courses in technical writing.
Therefore I have found it helpful in conducting Bible studies to make use of dramatic
readings, which force students to interpret the tone of the text, the intent of the writer
and the motivation of the characters. Theology and literature seminars also allow
participants to confront the ambiguity and subjectivity of interpretation. In doing so,
they realize that not all analysis is as clear as the work in their labs. My aim is not to
discredit scientific inquiry but to suggest its limits and to offer alternative paths of
Finally, it is important simply to support and encourage those whose vocation is
science. Until recently, most religious people engaged in dialogue with science tended
to assume the role of the custodian of ethics, lecturing the amoral technicians of the
laboratory. As in other contexts of pastoral care, a constructive confrontation is seldom
possible until a relationship of trust is established. Something as simple as an earnest
inquiry over coffee -- "What issues do you struggle with in your research?" -- may open
the way for fruitful discussion. If theology is to make an impact on scientific culture,
we cannot lose sight of the fact that scientists, engineers and technicians are not the
enemy but persons who struggle for meaning and purpose just as we do. Science and
religion should be regarded as allies in the effort to discern the meaning of God's
William Bragg, a pioneer in the field of X-ray crystallography, made the point quite
succinctly. He was asked whether science and theology are opposed to one another.
"Yes," he replied, "but in the sense that my thumb and forefinger are opposed to one
another -- between them I can grasp everything." Perhaps, between science and
theology, we cannot grasp everything, but surely the combination reveals more of the
cosmic mystery than either can touch alone.