In our last article, we examined the conflict model for the interaction between science and theology. The conflict model holds that science and theology discuss essentially the same set of facts, and do so in mutually exclusive ways. They cannot both be valid, either as sets of facts or general approaches. As philosopher Helen De Cruz has observed, however, “The vast majority of authors in the science and religion field [are] critical of the conflict model and [believe] it is based on a shallow and partisan reading of the historical record.” In that case, what are the alternatives? In Ian Barbour’s four-fold typology, which remains foundational for science and religion studies today, they are: independence, dialogue, and synthesis.
The independence model, or non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) as biologist Stephen Jay Gould called it, holds that science and theology deal with essentially distinct areas of human experience. Their magisteria (which is to say, teaching authority) do not essentially, or necessarily, overlap. Hence when a conflict arises, the most probable explanation is that one or the other has overstepped its disciplinary boundaries by making claims that pertain to the magisteria of the other. What, then, are these magisteri? A number of boundaries have been proposed.
One takes its lead from the work of the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). Barth was probably the most influential theologian of the twentieth century, though his contemporary, Paul Tillich (1886–1965), is probably more familiar to philosophers. During the Victorian era, nationalism was very strong, and it became normal for educated people to think of their nation as especially or uniquely favored by divine providence. Russia was “Holy Mother Russia,” Americans had a “Manifest Destiny,” the British had a “Civilizing Mission,” and so on. There was little sense of shame about invoking God for nationalistic or militaristic causes. One of the most famous songs of the American Civil War, for instance, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” frankly identifies the Union armies as God’s instrument, wreaking apocalyptic vengeance on the rebellious South.
This was the attitude with which many people went into the First World War. Theologians and ministers, thinking themselves good citizens and wanting to do their part, assured their contemporaries that God was on their side, and that they had a patriotic and a religious duty to join in the war effort. Karl Barth was one of the few theologians who recognized the war as a disaster right from the beginning, and refused to endorse it from the pulpit. He believed that his contemporary culture had gotten too chummy with God, had been thinking of God as a kind of national mascot or patron saint of civic institutions. It was because they weren’t really taking God seriously that they could be so casual, and invoke God so freely, for the war effort. Barth insisted that, to the contrary, God was “Wholly Other”—not just a big human with supernatural powers, or some kind of vague cosmic principle, but something radically, profoundly alien to human consciousness. If people had that understanding of God, Barth felt, they would think twice before assuming that God was on their side, and would approach God with a greater sense of reverence.
Barth’s insistence on the radical distinction between God and the world not only spoke to his contemporaries’ sense of anxiety and alienation, it also offered a solution to the interaction between science and theology.
When the war was over, and about ten million people had been slaughtered for no good reason, Barth’s theology made a good contrast with that of his contemporaries, who, at the beginning of the war, had said God was on their side. It didn’t look like God had been on anybody’s side, after such a disaster. Barth’s insistence on the radical distinction between God and the world not only spoke to his contemporaries’ sense of anxiety and alienation, it also offered a solution to the interaction between science and theology. Science is about a world from which God is radically distinct, according to Karl Barth. Theology is addressed to that radical distinction, and our relation to it—not to the world around us.
Or, at least not most of the time. Barth’s view came to be called “neo-orthodoxy” because it asserted the historical essentials, as Barth saw them, of the (Protestant) Christian faith against the extremes of fundamentalism on the one hand (the view that the Bible was dictated line-by-line, word-by-word, by God, and is hence infallible in every respect) and of liberal theology (the view that theology lacks propositional content, but is only about symbols and values) on the other. For Barth, there was only one time and place where God and the world definitively met, and that was in the career and person of Jesus Christ. On this “Christocentric” reading of the Bible, everything in it is true in so much as it relates to Jesus Christ, and hence also to God, but it is still mediated by fallible human witnesses, who speak through their own time and place and culture, and hence are not to be evaluated according to modern scientific standards. As long as the essential truth of that relation was maintained, the details were unimportant. Thus no attempt needed to be made to address potential conflicts between science and theology. Where they conflicted, the conflict was to be left unaddressed. But, as a general rule, they would not conflict, because their magisteria were largely (though not entirely) distinct.
Another approach to the independence model has been offered by existentialists. In existentialism, the contrast is between the world of the self—of inter- and intrapersonal relationship—and that of inanimate objects. It is, in other words, between the subjective and the objective. Theology pertains to the former, science to the latter—hence the two do not directly interact, or conflict. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked an existentialist-independence theory of science and theology when he said: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” Since the objective cannot eliminate or disregard the subjective, nor the subjective the objective, there is nothing for each to do but to respect the magisteria of the other.
Finally, Wittgenstein’s theory of “language games” has underwritten a form of theism called “Wittgensteinian Fideism.” Fideism is a loanword from Latin, meaning “faith(fide)-ism.” A fideist is a person who puts their trust in faith, on the view that reason is either irrelevant or subordinate to faith. It is often used as a term of abuse—hardly anyone self-identifies as a fideist, and it’s not clear that Wittgenstein himself held this view. Fideism can easily lead to conflict with science, but when combined with Wittgenstein’s view of language games, it does not. According to Wittgenstein, a language game is a way of talking and thinking rooted in a specific social context, in a community of people who have come together for a certain purpose. People who associate for a religious purpose do so in one context, for a scientific purpose in another. Neither are really about the way the world is, they’re about practices. The justification for those practices is not to be sought in accurate description of a mind-independent reality, but in the practice itself. Faith, like science, is a technology. Just as it would make no sense to ask whether a screw-driver or a hammer is a “truer” tool, it makes no sense to ask whether faith or science gives a “truer” account of reality. What we can do is choose more or less effective screwdrivers, or hammers—or, in other words, change out one kind of religious practice for another, or one kind of scientific practice for another. Because the practices are distinct, so are the language games, hence conflicts do not arise.
According to Ian Barbour, the independence model is a good place to begin when thinking about science and theology, but does not offer the most fulfilling or persuasive account possible. He criticizes Barth’s neo-orthodoxy for stressing the transcendence of God at the undue expense of God’s immanence, or presence in the good and beautiful world. It seems to present a bleak view of the world, and although it does not deny the possibility of scientific knowledge, it doesn’t seem to do much to encourage it either. Barth’s God is too distant, in Barbour’s view.
We naturally expect values to be informed by facts. If faith does not refer to facts, then how can it inform values?
Existentialism captures something important about faith, but it’s difficult to see how a set of beliefs that don’t refer to anything but our own subjectivity can underwrite claims about what, objectively, we ought to do. We naturally expect values to be informed by facts. If faith does not refer to facts, then how can it inform values? A person (like Martin Luther King, Jr.) might be willing to die for what is, objectively, right and just, but it’s difficult to understand why they would die for what they feel to be just, if that feeling is not grounded in something outside themselves—or, in other words, if it has no genuinely propositional content. Wittgensteinian Fideism faces a similar problem of self-reference. Arguably, a faith that commands people to give up their lives under certain, voluntarily chosen circumstances is not useful to that person. It is not, in other words, a good technology—at least from their point of view. The spirit of successful manipulation of oneself, others, and the world one inhabits, which is offered by Wittgensteinian Fideism, does not obviously harmonize with the spirit of submission, sacrifice, and other-regarding love enjoined by the Abrahamic faiths.
There is, finally, the problem that many faiths, certainly the Abrahamic faiths, make claims about the empirically available world. Not many Jews, for instance, would deny that Moses’s parting of the “Sea of Reeds” is a powerful symbol of God’s faithfulness and concern for the oppressed. But the symbol is powerful precisely because it is thought to have actually occurred, not in the imagination of the community, but in historical, empirical fact. Certainly there is no hint of merely or only symbolic discourse in the Pentatuch. The point of Judaism is not that it is useful to believe, but that it is true, that God is revealed through these and other historical encounters. While this may not pose as much of a challenge for the more philosophical or abstract faiths of India and China, the Abrahamic faiths are directly concerned with the realization of God’s plans in history, and hence also in empirical fact. To that extent, their magisteria do, indeed, overlap.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.