Theology and Science: Practical Cooperation for a Better Education

My research in education is interdisciplinary. I want to bring together perspectives from pedagogy, theology, and evolutionary studies of culture in order to understand what it might mean for humans to educate and to be educated, to teach and to learn. This implies that I need to establish some kind of relation between different perspectives, most notably between science (i.e.: evolutionary studies of culture) and theology. In this blogpost I clarify my position. I argue for a practical cooperation between different fields, a joining of forces against the challenges our world and our species face.

Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner stresses the family resemblance between science and religion, both being concerned with knowledge and truth and both preserving a sense of awe and mystery. Science, Hefner believes, poses three challenges to religion. The first challenge is that of conflict. Paradoxically, Hefner argues, conflict stems precisely from the original, historical unity of science and religion, and their remaining relatedness, as vectors for the human search for knowledge and truth. Conflict, Hefner adds, arises because the methods and conceptual tools of science and religion have become too different from each other, and because both fields have been incorporated into different, often opposing socio-cultural projects. The second challenge is that of communication between archaic forms of religious wisdom and the latest scientific knowledge. Hefner stresses the relevance of religious wisdom for life today, but points to the problem of archaic expressions of this wisdom. These expressions run the risk of obscuring the importance of reinterpreting them, certainly in light of scientific knowledge that seems to deny their coherence and, thus, rejects the possibility that they carry meaning for human life at all. The third challenge, which is the focus of our current discussion, is the need to interpret new experiences that become possible because of science. Hefner points to genetic engineering and to the impact of technology as two sources of life experiences and existential questions that are new in our time. This third challenge is, one might argue, the consequence of what science, according to Hefner, does:

“It is essential to understand that science (together with science-based technology) intersects human life not only in the intellectual realm, where it engenders experiences that are in themselves new to human life” (Philip Hefner, How Science is a Resource and a Challenge for Religion,in Zygon(2002) 37, 55-62.

In short, thus, Hefner argues that science generates new experiences (including knowledge), on which we need to reflect and which theologians need to integrate in their work. He believes that acknowledging and integrating these new experiences into theological reflection, which are made possible by science, enables theologians to recognize the activity of God in our world today. This connection, between scientific knowledge and the discernment of divine action, illuminates his compelling claim, made in “The Human Factor”, about the relation between theology and science:

“For the person of religious faith, the encounter with science is itself a religious and a theological event” (Philip Hefner, The Human Factor, p. 9)

This event, as becomes clear throughout Hefner’s work, includes the need for both a retrieval and a renewal of a religious tradition; in other words, the need for hard theological work to discover meaning for today. Hefner argues that the significance of the interaction between science and theology lies in the meaning that emerges from it. Hefner takes the position that theology should not take an apologetic approach to the encounter with science, but should instead seek to use science in creating new meaning in the world as described by science:

“[…] the point, however, is not to reformulate doctrines so that they can pass muster with scientists and philosophers of science. Rather, the aim of reformulating is to enable traditional faith to be a catalyst for the creation of new meaning – creating meaning that will enable us to understand our lives in the world meaningfully, in the world whose causes and coherence science describes. […] Rather, the aim is to serve the human community in its struggle to understand how the natural world can be a meaningful ambience for human living.” (Philip Hefner, Theology and Science. Engaging the Richness of Experiencein Theology and Science (2003) 1:1, 95-111, 109)

Elsewhere, Hefner uses the concept of embodied science and embodied religion to develop the thesis that a dialogue between theology and science should be about improving our world. In using the term ‘embodied’, Hefner draws our attention to the societal structures in which science and religion are ‘performed’. ‘Embodiment’, in this sense, means ‘being situated in society’, ‘being part of society’s struggles’. Regarding science in particular, Hefner stresses the distinction between idealistic views of ‘pure science’ – the lone scientist laboring in his or her laboratory – and realistic views of science – teams competing for grants, research methods based on the use of technology, the involvement of corporations, etc. He goes on to say that, while societal influences have caused the practice of science to develop as it has, science is necessary for the very survival of society. A dialogue between theology and science that takes ‘embodiment’ seriously, Hefner goes on to contend, is a dialogue that concerns itself with the needs of the society in which it is situated. Although Hefner might be said to have an overly optimistic outlook on science as promoting the wellbeing of humanity, in light of the problems caused by the unwarranted use of science and/or technology, his use of ‘embodied science’ does point us directly to the question of why we should engage in a dialogue between science and theology in the first place. Also, in Hefner’s defense, we should bear in mind that he distinguishes between “science-as-such” and “science-as-enabler-for-changing/improving-the-world” or “SEIW” in “Embodied Science”. The latter of the two he describes as being “the primary partner to be engaged in our work in religion-and-science”. This implies that his optimism only applies to this particular category of science. Moreover, the concept of “SEIW” shifts our focus from a dialogue about concepts between theology and science to a dialogue between theology and science about the world: Which world do we want? How do we see ourselves as part of that world?

Influenced by feminist theologian Elisabeth Johnson’s theological analysis of ecological care in today’s world, I advocate for her fifth model of the relation between science and theology, a model shaped by a common concern for the future, a model focused on “practical cooperation for the preservation of the natural world”. Practical cooperation ensures that we study the relation between the sciences – or ‘a’ science – and theology with a clear focus on the common care for the future. The subject of such a dialogue should not be, for instance, whether or not a concept of the divine is scientifically tenable. It should be whether or not a concept of the divine helps us, humans, to become part of the ecological web of life on our planet in such a way that life is fostered, not destroyed.
It is important to note that a dialogue between theology and science, according to the model of ‘practical cooperation’ or ‘common care’, is only possible from a theological position that is radically (or: vulnerably) self-confident. By this, I mean that practical cooperation is only possible for a theology that has so much trust in the value of the religious tradition of which it is part, that it is both open to question every one of that tradition’s interpretations and, simultaneously, is ready to offer that tradition as a source of help, consolation, and support to the world. Only from this radical or vulnerable – I’m still undecided about which term is most appropriate – self-confidence will differences be seen as exciting opportunities from which to learn, instead as dangerous threats to the truthfulness of a religious tradition.
It is from this radical/vulnerable self-confidence that I try to bring theology and pedagogy together, against a background of evolutionary thinking, with a focus on how to better understand and, moreover, to improve education, in particular Catholic education.


This blogpost is an abridged and slightly revisioned version of a chapter in “Experience and Critical Reflection in Religion: Schillebeeckx’s Theology and Evolutionary Studies of Religion” in: Stephan van Erp, Christopher Cimorelli, Christine Alpers (eds.), Salvation in the World: The Crossroads of Public Theology, London, Bloomsbury T&T Clark.

Philip Hefner, How Science is a Resource and a Challenge for Religion, in Zygon(2002) 37, 55-62.

Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2000.

Philip Hefner, Theology and Science. Engaging the Richness of Experience in Theology and Science (2003) 1:1, 95-111.

Philip Hefner, A Fuller Concept of Evolution – Big Bang to Spirit in Zygon(2012) 47:2, 298-307.

Philip Hefner, Embodied Science. Recentering Religion-and-Science in Zygon 45:1 (2010) 251-262.

Elisabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts. Darwin and the God of Love, London, Continuum, 2014 (Kindle edition). (italics by author)

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