Science and Religion in Culture: In Search of a Reason to Enter the Dialogue

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 3 »Science And Religion In Culture In Search Of A Reason To Enter The Dialogue

Catherine Punsalan earned an M.A. in Theological Studies from Loyola School of Theology, Manila and has taught theology at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. She is currently a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame and completing an MA in the History and Philosophy of Science also at Notre Dame, Indiana.

A fascinating situation that has arisen with our growing knowledge about the natural world is the almost hypnotic hold that science has on us. With the growing influence of science has come the apparent decline of the place of religion in culture.  We need only to recall the atmosphere that permeated the period of the Enlightenment to gain a sense of the desire to break away from Church authority and dogmatism and embrace the capacity of human beings to control their destiny and come to a knowledge of truth on their own. In such a context, the opposition could be summed up in the conflict set up between science and religion, where the former represented the spirit of the time and the latter represented that from which the period wanted to be freed.  Even as we have gone far beyond the Enlightenment, the aspect of it that has just been described is still true today.  Theologians are only beginning to come to grips with the reality of the influence of science on society and, consequently, on faith to the extent that they feel the need to bring it to bear on their work.  Thus we find ourselves struggling to understand the possible relationships that can and do exist between science and religion.

This paper is being written in the context of a search for a method of analysis and theological reflection that brings out the relevance of the discussion on science and theology for a developing country like the Philippines.  It will present Langdon Gilkey’s evaluation of a science culture and a technological society as presented in his theology of history and theology of culture.

I will argue that while most current discussions on science and religion, as outlined by Ian Barbour, are intellectually interesting, they do not appear to be immediately relevant to a nation whose primary problem is that of development.  On the other hand, one of Gilkey’s approaches to the discussion, namely, his look at science and religion as presenting potentially competing symbol systems and his look at the ambiguity of a scientific and technological culture, provides a way of understanding how science and technology can present religious challenges.  In this way, he enables us to see why science becomes relevant for religion and, consequently, why we should begin to concern ourselves with the science and theology or science and religion discussion.

I will begin my presentation of Gilkey’s arguments by showing how science and religion end up as competing worldviews.  The seeming conflict rests on the idea that both represent ways of ordering our experience of the world, of giving meaning to our experiences and directing our actions.  At the same time, science and theology have, at one time or another, claimed to have comprehensive explanatory powers.  With science having taken the crown as “queen of the disciplines” from theology, we discover the emergence of a science culture and a technological society.  With the allure of the method and content of science, we find the creation, on the one hand, of the myth of a “new man” who will be able to discover ways not only to control the once unruly powers of nature, but also the ambiguities of human societies.  On the other hand, the reality of the technological society that is created presents us not with the solutions to all our problems and the fulfillment of our desires as hoped for, but with an even greater awareness of the complexity of the human situation.

Just as theology has had to be reminded at different times of history that science has the authority in the realm of the natural world, science must be reminded of its own explanatory limits.  Ultimate answers to religious and existential questions are not within its field of expertise.  Questions of existence, of the possibility of even doing science, questions of the meaning and purpose of the very discoveries of science—all remain beyond the reach of scientific knowledge.  Science and technology give birth to ambiguities that they do not have the power to explain or overcome.  At this level, I want to argue, theology must come in both to give meaning to the ambiguities and to give some guidance through them.  At this level, the theologians of a developing nation that has turned to science and technology to try to solve some of its problems must begin to be attentive.  It is in this way, I want to argue, that the relationship of science and religion are of immediate concern to the theologians of the Philippines.  And through this first appreciation of the problem will come an appreciation of the seemingly more abstract discussions on science and religion.

I will end my paper with a personal reflection on how the experience of a science culture and a technological society are but manifestations of the reality of the sin-grace tension in our world.

Approaches to the Encounter of Science and Religion

I will begin by presenting a schema of the different ways in which people have come to understand or approach the encounter between science and religion.  An important name in the science and religion discussion, especially with regard to attempting to present the terrain of the discussion, is a professor of physics and religion, Ian Barbour.  Some of you may already be familiar with the typology he presents of the relationship between science and religion as found in the works of different thinkers in the field.  I would like to present this to you today, in order to help summarize some of the ways the discussion is unfolding.  Some of you may already be able to recognize how some of our earlier speakers may fall within these categories.   Barbour speaks specifically of conflict, independence, dialogue and integration as ways of understanding or approaching the relationship between science and religion.  It should be noted that this typology has been criticized for oversimplifying current discussions.  Nevertheless, I believe that it remains a helpful schema for those of us trying to begin to get hold of the landscape.  At the same time, Barbour admits that thinkers do not fall neatly under just one of these categories but could fall under several of them.

From Conflict to Integration

The common view of the relationship between science and religion is one of conflict.  The reason for such a view, to be further elucidated later in this paper, has a long history dating even further back than the now infamous Galileo affair up to the more current battles over legislation on the teaching of creation science in American schools.  The image of Galileo being silenced for trying to advance science in the face of an authoritarian and backward Church is an unfortunate representation of what is commonly believed to be the relationship between science and religion.  While developments in the areas of science, of theology and of the philosophy of science have made the conflict model less common among academics, it still has its adherents—and one gets the impression that it is the more common perception among ordinary people.

I would like at this point to take a slight detour, since I have the floor to clarify some misconceptions regarding the Galileo affair.  Firstly, let me admit that the Church made a very bad move in taking such a definitive stance on a particular scientific question.  It further aggravated the situation by taking over 300 years to correct its mistake.  But we will also be making a grave error if we take the caricature of the events that is often present to be the facts. There are many elements involved in the history of the affair.  Let me just make three points. (1) The incident took place during a very volatile period in the Church’s history.  This was the period of the counter-Reformation, not long after the Council of Trent.  The Church was trying to fend off attacks from all sides and trying to hold on to its identity.  As we know, a large part of the controversy at the time revolved around the issue of scripture and the authority to interpret scripture as well as the relationship between scripture and tradition.  Galileo emerged during a time when the Church was trying to communicate the importance of the role of tradition and the magisterium in understanding scripture. (2) Galileo never proved heliocentricism.  In fact, conclusive evidence regarding helio-centricism did not come until over a century later with Isaac Newton.  It did not help the situation that Galileo was a rather strong personality who believed he had demonstrated more than he actually had with his observations and theories.  We should note that Cardinal Bellarmine and Galileo both agreed that if there was something proved with certainty regarding the natural world, then scripture should be reinterpreted in the light of that natural knowledge.  The criterion of certainty was one they both agreed with because this was one of the criteria of the Aristotelian science in which they were trained. (3) Finally, technically, Galileo was not condemned in 1633 for teaching heliocentrism but for disobeying the edict he was presented with and had agreed to in the year 1616, i.e., to refrain from teaching or writing about heliocentrism, which he violated by writing The Dialogue on Two Chief World Systems.[1]

Conflict Thesis

Those who see the relationship between science and religion as one of conflict believe that both areas make contradictory claims about the world.  The proponents of these are found among those who espouse a materialist worldview and those who espouse biblical literalism.  The scientific materialists fall into the error of taking the claims of science beyond the realm of science.  They go beyond what can actually be known scientifically, into the realm of metaphysics.  They take what science can tell us about the natural world as the only truth about the world.  This has been more accurately called scientism rather than science.  Insofar as they make claims that what can be known about science is all that constitutes reality, i.e., there is no reality outside the realm of the natural, they come into conflict with the claims of theists.  What should be noted is that the natural or physical sciences cannot by definition make any claims regarding anything beyond the natural world (Barbour 1997).  Such claims are no longer scientific but metaphysical.  This tendency to move from science to metaphysics is at the root of many difficulties in the encounter between science and religion.

On the other side of the conflict, biblical literalism has given birth to science that is grounded in scripture, a current example being creation science.  Within the realm of theology, this approach finds itself challenged by biblical hermeneutics and exegesis. Exegetical methods like that of the historical-critical method have enabled us to understand the historical context behind the formation of scripture, making simplistic literal interpretations of scripture questionable.  At the same time, it should be understood that the emergence of creation science did not and does not occur outside of social and cultural factors.  Periods of moral uncertainty and rapid change understandably give rise to the tendency to seek out the authoritative and definitive.  Creation science must also be seen within the context of a reaction to materialist metaphysics.  But neither of these reasons validates it as a science.1 Interestingly, what proponents of both sides of the conflict have in common is the assumption of atheistic natural science.

Independence Thesis

An alternative to an approach that sees the two realms competing for authority in the same domain is to see them as being concerned with “totally independent and autonomous” ways of knowing the world, either in terms of the methods employed or the “language game” used.  Barbour’s example of the employment of “entirely” different methods includes neo-orthodoxy, which would juxtapose the source of knowledge in science and religion, i.e., human reason and human discovery and revelation.  On the other hand, existentialism would juxtapose the realm of impersonal objects and the attitude of objective detachment in science with that of personal selfhood and subjective involvement in religion.   

On the level of different language games, an instrumentalist view of language would posit that the languages of science and religion have two distinct objectives.  The purpose of scientific language is to enable scientists to make predictions about the natural world that would allow for control of nature.  Religious language, on the other hand, has been converting and inspiring people to lead ethical lives as its objective. Language, in both cases, is purely utilitarian and makes no ontological claims. In the independence thesis, as Barbour presents it, the two realms are “totally” and “entirely” divorced from one another.  Knowledge is absolutely compartmentalized.  An historical look at the development of science and how science and religion have in fact come in contact will show that this thesis, although useful as a starting point and a response to the conflict thesis, is inadequate in and of itself (Barbour, 77-84).


While asserting the independence of science and religion, one has to acknowledge a point of contact between the two.  Here, Barbour presents three alternative paths.  One path of dialogue is that of nature-centered spirituality.  This route, which provides a firm ground for the development of environmental ethics, is based on the sense of awe or a sense of the sacred that the natural world inspires (Barbour, 95-98).

A second way looks at the methodological parallel found in science and theology.  This path helps overcome the common misconception that we saw in the existentialist independence thesis that over-emphasized the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of religion.  Ideas like subject-object relations, “theory-ladenness” interpretation, creative imagination, coherence, comprehensiveness, fruitfulness, paradigms and the role of community are operative in both science and religion are highlighted.  The temptation that arises from being able to outline similarities in the way of knowing in science and religion is to forget the differences.  There is also the danger of reducing religion to an intellectual system.  Nevertheless, the methodological path is an important, although preliminary approach to the encounter.  At the same time, it is more the concern of philosophers than of theologians (Barbour, 93-95).

A third path follows from the question often asked as to why modern science emerged from the Christian West. The claim is that two presuppositions about the world that come from biblical thought made modern science possible, namely that the world is orderly and contingent. If the world is orderly, then it is intelligible.2If the world is intelligible yet contingent, observation becomes necessary in trying to grasp its intelligibility.  Modern science is grounded on the idea that we come to know the world through observation of its processes from which we arrive at laws and theories that make these processes known to us. 

Beyond the presuppositions of science are limit questions to which it leads. These can be in the form of: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “How is it that the world is intelligible to the human mind?” At the same time, science has led to ethical issues that require something other than science in order to deal with them.  This path is one that Gilkey’s thoughts develop more fully.


Barbour notes:

If the point of contact between science and theology refer only to basic presuppositions and limit questions, reformulation [of doctrines] will seldom be called for.  But if there are some points of contact between particular doctrines and particular scientific theories (such as the doctrine of creation in relation to evolution or astronomy), and if it is acknowledged that all doctrines are historically conditioned, there is in principle the possibility of significantly doctrinal development and reformulations as suggested by the advocates ofIntegration (Barbour, 92-93).

What do “the advocates of Integration” present as possible ways of bringing together science and religion?  Barbour presents three approaches to integration, namely natural theology, a theology of nature and a systematic synthesis.  Characteristic of all three approaches is that they advocate a more direct relationship between the content of science and theology.  The classic approach of natural theology is that of the argument from design. The ordered and intelligible world that science reveals points to the existence of God as designer or, more commonly today, communicator of information.  Contemporary science, be it physics or biology through the anthropic principle or the theory of evolution makes this an attractive approach. Even as the elegance of contemporary scientific findings appear to support such arguments, the God it arrives at is far removed from the God of believing communities (Barbour, 98-100).

An alternative to natural theology is a theology of nature.  This approach relies primarily on the religious experience and the life of the religious community.  Although the main source of a theology of nature is outside of science, science is allowed to influence the possibility of reformulation of certain doctrines. Underlying this idea is the fact that “our understanding of God’s relationship to nature always reflects our view of nature” (Barbour, 247).  One interesting form of a theology of nature extends new ideas from science to “suggest possible ways in which God might interact with the world.”  Such suggestions must be consistent with scientific evidence but need not be required by it.  This approach is one that Barbour himself finds potentially fruitful, although we must always be careful in formulating a theology based on current science since the latter is likely to change in time (Barbour, 247; he attempts to do this by looking at the creation with the help of astronomy and evolution, 195-249).

The third alternative attempts to bring science and theology together into an inclusive metaphysical system.  Here, philosophy must be factored into the equation more explicitly.  The metaphysical system that Barbour presents as best able to deal with difficulties like the problem of evil, of chance and of the reality of human freedom is process philosophy.  Process philosophy focuses on becoming rather than being.  It makes use of many categories and insights that are of importance in contemporary thought like temporality and historicity, participation and interdependence, individuality and self-determination (or in the word of Whitehead, “self-creation”). It is able to deal with current issues like the ecological crisis.  Barbour is well aware of the criticism against using process philosophy as the metaphysical system to ground a theology, such as its abstractness, its departure from classical theology and the weakening of a sense of God’s transcendence in its emphasis on God’s immanence.  He believes, however, that these criticisms can be overcome (247;281-304;322-8).

My difficulty with Barbour's approach and many of those he outlines of other current approaches is that, while I find them intellectually interesting, it is not always clear to me how they are relevant in a context like the Philippines.  I find myself wondering how much of the content of these discussions go beyond being interesting points of discussions for the Filipino specialists to dealing with significant theological questions for Filipino believers.

A Theology from a Scientific Culture

So, we now turn to looking at Langdon Gilkey, who may hold some interesting observations that can serve as pointer to how we may also approach the science and religion discussion.  Barbour categorized Gilkey under the headings of Independence and Dialogue.  He claims that Gilkey, especially in his Creationism on Trial,focused on the distinction and independence of science and religion.  His later writings undertake a dialogue done in terms of the presuppositions of science and limit questions that flow from it. 

Another way of viewing Gilkey’s approach is in terms of a theology of culture.  One influence on Gilkey’s thought is Paul Tillich. Gilkey makes use of Tillich’s method of correlation in a culture permeated by science, if not scientism.  Ted Peters takes the best description of Gilkey’s method to be, in Gilkey’s words, “an examination of general experience and an explication of Christian symbols.”3 Here, we are interested in Gilkey’s examination of American culture, which is in part characterized by an exaltation of science and a devaluation of religion.  (Keeping in mind that he is writing for a different context, the question we should ask ourselves during the remainder of the paper is “does his description hold true for our context?”) Through an examination of modern culture, Gilkey argues for the possibility of the re-emergence of the sacred, of transcendence, of God within it.  The unveiling of the illusion of the progress of history and humanity as manifested in the continuing ambiguity of the human condition creates space for the rediscovery of the religious in such a culture. 

In the science and religion dialogue, Gilkey begins with what I would term as a weak version of the independence thesis.  In his Creationism on Trial, he states the differences of science and religion in terms of their domain of inquiry and the canon that they use.  His testimony at the Little Rock trial shows that he holds the basic propositions of the independence thesis, namely methodological and linguistic differences between science and religion. The distinction between primary causality and secondary causality was also a key point (Gilkey, 1985:108-125).

At the same time, many elements of what, for Barbour, constitutes the dialogue approach are already present in this work.  He was also aware of the presuppositions of modern science that were borrowed from the Christian West. Early in his writings on the theology of history (Gilkey 1976), he develops the idea that a scientific culture finds itself faced with ambiguities that lead to limit questions that cannot be answered by science. The unity of truth requires some form of unification of these two ways of knowing the world (1976:207). Even with the distinctions of science and religion, “the ‘creaturely’ referents are the same: nature, events, institutions and persons.” Religious speech is speech about God’s conjunction with the world.  Thus, as Barbour has already pointed out, our understanding of the world will influence our understanding of this conjunction (1976:217). Gilkey gives three reasons for the need for a discourse between the religious and the secular dimension.

1. The understanding of God in Christian faith appears out of the manifestation of God in special events, in particular human persons (e.g., Jesus), in history generally, and in nature… 2. Communal life and individual life are both lived within the divine presence, and they are supported, judged, and healed by that presence… 3. The life lived actively and creatively on the basis of religious faith, a life expressive of it, must be lived within the world of persons, of historical communities and traditions, and of nature (1976:223-4).

Beyond dialogue, Gilkey opens the door for entering into what constitutes integration.  As he concludes this book, he acknowledges that:                    

… religious symbols can, in being reflected upon and articulated, take on the garb, so to speak, of the philosophy and the science of their time.  Yet despite these material and factual differences, they can express the same fundamental religious convictions or ideas.  On this ground there seems an excellent historical and traditional precedent for interpreting the idea of creation in the terms of what we now know scientifically and historically about the history of nature and the history of pre-historical men and women (1976:228).

Amidst all these ways of encounter between science and religion, Gilkey’s writings focus on the reality of science as a cultural force, as molding an important part of a society's symbol system.  From here, the method of correlation allows him to present the scientific culture as the context that gives rise to questions to which religion is able to provide meaningful answers. We now, therefore, proceed to take a brief look at the place of science and religion in culture with a focus on his description of a science culture and a technological society.

Power in Science and Religion

The conflict between science and religion arises when the two are presented as competing symbol systems, competing ways of understanding the world and of interpreting and ordering our experiences in the world.  They conflict when they claim some kind of absolute explanatory power in understanding all aspects of reality, as the examples of a materialist metaphysics and creation science show.  The dominance of science emerged prominently in the Enlightenment struggle to overcome heteronomy, especially Church authority.  In the place of Church authority came rationality and autonomy.  The best example of the exercise of these was science.  What better example can there be than a mode of human knowing that not only tried to grasp the workings of the natural world but also control it? To appreciate this, we must remember that the natural world science promises human control of is the same natural world whose awesome power inspired archaic religions.  The natural world at one time gave birth to religions and, in the minds of the enlightened, it would eventually be within the grasp of human reason to render religion superfluous.  Science and religion become, in one sense, attempts to make life in the world comprehensible and bearable.  Religion gave meaning and hope in the face of the forces that human beings experienced as beyond their control.4 With the historical evolution of religions, the forces were understood not only as those of nature but those of the very condition of human beings, their own ambivalence.  Science began as an attempt to understand nature.  With the success of its explanatory power relative to the natural world, people began to gain such confidence in it that they turned to it to answer more fundamental questions, questions of meaning and of final destiny.

Power of Religion

A look at archaic religion shows that religious activities were in part attempts to share in the power of nature. Human complexity and moral ambiguities become clear in the human participation in this power.  Whether we look at the role of shamans and magic in archaic religion or the imperialist stance that post-axial religions have taken, be it political or academic, we see this. 

Looking at Christianity in particular, what started as a persecuted sect of the Jewish religion has emerged as, not only a dominant religion, but also as a political force in history.  Gilkey brings out the interesting dynamic of how groups who hold a position of actual dominance do not like to acknowledge this.  This is true for Christianity, which often still sees itself as a persecuted faith.  And yet, if we look at the place of Christians and Christian groups in history, we find that they have had and continue to hold positions of power and influence in society.  This fact is seen in the Church’s political and economic power in Europe during the period of Christendom and the political and economic powers of the so-called moral majority in the United States.  It is no less evident in the influence we see that the Catholic Church as well as other religious groups have on Philippine political life.  An even more pointed sign of the power of religion is brought out by reflections of liberation theologians who have criticized its use to lull the poor into passivity in the midst of oppression.

The power of the Christian faith in particular resides in its claim to show the path to the fulfillment of the deepest human desires, to hold the key to our identity, the meaning of our existence and our future hope, and all of this with divine sanction.  The belief in its divine origin and the divine origin of its sources of truth claims easily leads to believing that it is the source of all truth.  Thus, its vision and understanding of the world is thevision and version to be adopted by members of the Christian community.

A significant point of conflict between science and religion is found in the claim to comprehensive explanatory power where every other discipline is made “subservient” to and “dependent” on the “queen of the disciplines,” theology.  Gilkey points out that every discipline has “hidden imperialistic aims” and reminds us that “theology exercised these for generations.”5  

For centuries, theology was the “queen” of all disciplines to which all else were simply handmaidens. It was normative for the direction of the developments of philosophy, including natural philosophy. Again, we return to the Galileo affair and are reminded of how this was a struggle for ultimate authority regarding knowledge of the world. The tenacity with which the Church clung to its position was due to the association of a particular understanding of the secondary causes operative in the world with adherence to Church authority. This position of authority, the power that resides with being the ultimate norm for knowledge is what was taken away from the Church. With this loss came a weakening of even those areas of human experience of which it rightly laid an authoritative claim—those having to do with questions of ultimacy, of meaning and of destiny.

Power of Science

Science, with its beginnings as a marginal field of knowledge, began to claim the place of centrality and normativity that earlier belonged to theology.  As Gilkey stated it:

If there be a “queen” of the academic disciplines today, it is certainly natural science.  If there is a “sacred knowledge” depended on and hence revered by everyone, it is scientific knowledge—for science represents to us the knowledge that promises well-being (1985:169).

Science not only became a threat to religion in challenging religion’s misplaced claim to authority regarding secondary causality, but also became a threat through the extrapolation of its domain into metaphysics.  The gravity of the threat that science posed rested precisely on the success within its limited area of study.  The problem is not with the theoretical structure of science but with the “religious aura” that emerges in a scientific culture.  This “aura” makes the metaphysical extension of science common even among a majority of the academia (Gilkey 1985:175-6). Science has become a psuedo-religion providing a comprehensive view of reality, offering hope for means of overcoming suffering and death and claiming and determining our future destiny.

The knowledge that science has given us of nature has also given us the power to use nature, as we will.  The immense power that archaic religions intuited in nature, power that we today continue to sense is now ours to control.  In reflecting on Bacon’s notion of knowledge as power, Gilkey concludes that,

Through recent science, the power within things, the very power of finite thing to be, has been in part understood; and, in that understanding, this power has become our power, power in our hands—thus, as Bacon predicted, it is now power directed by our intentions, our intelligence, our purposes, in short, our freedom (1995:131).

Consequently, our successful manipulation of nature through technology has exposed the extent of the human power of both creativity and destruction. The moral ambiguity we find in the human heart is not overcome by science.  Science, in itself, does not tell us how we are to use the power it has enabled us to claim.  The reality of our continued destruction of the environment even with our knowledge of the possible consequences is proof of this.  Military weapons point to the extent of our power for destruction.  The materialist and consumerist society that has emerged from the technological advances that science has made possible reveals further the power of science to control even the hearts of human beings. Not unlike religion, science too fails to acknowledge the extent of the power it has in society.  This shortcoming leads to a lack of an appreciation of the need for a responsible use of this power (Gilkey 1985:186-90). 

Apart from biblical literalists, it would be difficult to find persons who would challenge science in explaining the processes of the natural world.  Often, the failure has been in incorporating what the sciences tell us about the world in our theological reflections.  The opposite tendency to allow science to explain more than science is capable of explaining is far easier to do. Such a tendency is understandable given the degree of accuracy with which science has been able to describe the natural world, not to mention the extent to which science has led to technologies that have improved many areas of our lives.  It is at this point that Gilkey’s reflections on a scientific culture become indispensable. We must be reminded that the progress we have made with the help of science has not all been to the good.  At the same time, even the best advances of science consistently lead to questions that science itself cannot answer.

The Ambiguity of a Scientific Culture and a Technological Society

Two phenomena born of a scientific culture lead us back to religion or at least a sense of the religious.  Limit questions continually arise out of the findings of science, whether these are in the form of existential or ethical questions. Science cannot answer the question of why it is actually possible to do science, i.e., why there is something rather than nothing, why the world in which we exist is intelligible, why we are able to understand the world.  Science cannot tell us the meaning and purpose of all that we find in nature much less the meaning and purpose of our lives. At best it can claim that we are the result of natural processes, hardly the indication of meaning and purpose.  It cannot even tell us what we are to do with what science enables us to learn about our world.  At the same time, the application of science in technology, our use of the power of nature to control nature, has only revealed even more clearly the ambiguity of human existence. The ambiguity of the human will is made manifest when that which can lead to the good also ends up coming to evil. 

Beyond Science to Myth

Gilkey presents a powerful myth that has emerged out of science, that of a “new man.” The new scientific man is presented as the scientist in the white coat.

This man thus in modest actuality but also—and this is the first element of the mythical—in infinite potentialityknows the secrets of things, what their effective structures are, and therefore how they work.  Consequently—and here is the second mythical element—he is the man who can control these forces which he now understands and brings them into the service of human purposes.  This control over the blind forces of our natural environment—so the myth continues—has already been partly realized through technology. Why cannot the same sort of knowing directed now at man’s own psychological, social and historical problems—yes, even at the genetic structures which determine man’s nature—lead to the same kind of control over human life and thus lead at last to the directing of our own biological and historical destiny along the lines of human purposes? . . . thus man can free himself from every aspect of his former bondage, from bondage both to the exterior and to the interior forces that have worked against his will.6

If we look closer at this myth, it will reveal necessary limits of what science can do in our human quest for some control over our lives and destiny. The emergence of “the new scientific man” and his greatest success is possible only through the loss of human freedom when even human beings become the object of scientific control.  The irony of the myth is that it promises human beings greater freedom through greater knowledge of human beings.  Such knowledge is supposed to enable us to gain control of human life making us the determiner of our destiny.  But this is only possible if we presuppose the absence of freedom, a necessary (if not necessarily conscious) assumption in dealing with human beings as objects.  He goes on to say that

a myth which promises man freedom over necessitating destiny on the basis of man’s complete subservience to necessitating determination is surely less intelligible than are even the most sharply paradoxical puzzles of human freedom and divine grace (1981:82).

Although control over nature creates its own sets of ambiguities, control over human beings presents even greater difficulties because we are dealing with free subjects.  Attempts to control human beings and their destiny are in danger of nothing less than dehumanization and tyranny if human beings are seen strictly as objects of control and knowledge. The danger is not only in the objectified subjects but also in the scientists as they move from the realm of science into politics in an attempt to make use of their knowledge of human beings.  Gilkey’s basic thesis at this point is that human beings, scientists, become less free when they leave the lab and use power to control others because power corrupts.7 The image is one of persons who have grown in knowledge to the extent of wanting to put this knowledge to work to improve society.  This means gaining control in society.  Such individuals are not ones who, because of their knowledge, are more free but ones who are themselves just as prone to biases and prejudices.  What greater prejudice can there be than believing you possess the knowledge of the way things should be?  The objectivity of the lab is not to be found in the political arena.  “We move from the innocence of moral intention to the corruption of actualization.”  There are enough examples of this in history to remind us that human beings seem to have no control over their own will, much less history (1981:90-91).

The Problems of Technology

Even in the realm of nature, the lack of human control still manifests itself.  “We only barely control our control over it.  We are hardly the masters of our own mastery over nature’s powers.”8 The creative or destructive potential of science depends on our use of science.  Gilkey reminds us that:

… it all depends on the use; and in turn, the use depends upon the political and the legal health of the society, and thus ultimately upon the moral strength, the wisdom and finally, the spiritual depth of the culture itself—in short, on the inward life and power of the persons in the culture (1985:200).

But it is precisely this ambiguity that the “myth of the new scientific man” promises science will enable us to overcome. 

At the same time, once something becomes institutionalized, it gains a life of its own and unfolds consequences beyond the original intention.  This is true even for technology. This process consequently leads to greater unfreedom. Gilkey gives three reasons for this claim. (1) The loss of freedom or control over technology is evident in our inability to stop technological expansion. At this point in history, what can be discovered will be discovered and applied. (2) Further, the technological expansion is not under rational determination. A survey of the new products and processes with questionable usefulness and, often, unquestionable wastefulness that emerge every day is testimony to these. (3) Finally, he says that technology has proven to be a servant not of our rationality but our bondage, sinfulness and greed citing the profit motive, national pride and national or class paranoia as being some of the driving forces behind our technology (1981:93-94).

He describes succinctly how the good of the human community pursued through technology quickly deteriorates into a dehumanizing reality as goals are reached.  He describes how the attempt at the systematization of life through the rationalization of its various areas has the best of objectives. The idea is simply to try to attain efficiency so that the common efforts can be directed toward a shared goal. Control and remove inefficiency. Diminish all that is wasteful and irrelevant. What could be wrong with trying to eradicate incoherence born of the contingent or accidental in life and trying to reduce inefficiencies born of personal weaknesses, the proneness to error or arbitrary whims? And yet, what emerges is a situation where human beings become the servants rather than the masters of their institutions, finding themselves helpless within the system. Individuality and uniqueness are sacrificed to the common systematic effort, while creativity, aesthetics and ethics, which, if they do not lead to inefficiency, may compromise the level of efficiency and are deemed impractical. He claims that the problem with technology is not so much that the human being becomes subordinate to machines, but becomes part of them (1976:11-12).

Technology is also said to be destructive of many less public grounds of our identity as persons, such as our identification with a particular place and community. It rewards and satisfies only externally by giving us things to consume or to watch. He states that, “having dampened our creative activity in the world into the rote work expected of a mere part of a system, it now smothers the intensity of our private enjoyments by offering us the passive pleasures of mere consumption” (1976:12). Personal being, freedom, transcendence all get relegated to our “leisure time,” which is itself becoming a consumer’s leisure. The grim picture is that “meaning” moves away from qualitative consumption to quantitative consumption where material affluence rather than internal creativity becomes the top priority in the search for worth in life (1976:13).

We have not even got to the question of the just use of technology. Because, while emphasizing these dehumanizing aspects of technology, Gilkey acknowledges not only that we cannot escape a technological society but that political and economic changes in these directions are needed in our pursuit of liberation.  Thus, a deep ambiguity is the fact that, “the technological society that we must retain and develop if economic and political justice are to mean anything in our future, is itself a threat to the humanization of man[sic]” (1976:13).

The Challenges

What is made clear by a technological society is that contemporary culture has so imbibed the scientific mindset that science is no longer confined to how we deal with the natural world. Our approach to history, the individual, human community and even religion, have been influenced by the method and findings of the natural sciences. Science has molded how we perceive and approach reality. Beyond the way we view reality, science is defining what constitutes all of reality.  The move from focus on the natural world to claims about all that there is constitutes a leap beyond science to metaphysics. Once scientists are led to proposing a comprehensive worldview, they no longer speak authoritatively as scientists. They leave behind the certainty that grounds the confidence with which they make metaphysical and epistemological claims and enter the more precarious arena of philosophy, doing so as amateurs. 

At the same time, the confidence in science comes not only from its explanatory success but also from its predictive ability and consequent technological accomplishments. The distinction between what science tells us about the world and the technological use that this knowledge is put to is an important one.  Much of Gilkey’s reflection on the idea of the ambiguity of science is actually largely about the ambiguity of our use of the knowledge we gain from science.  Gilkey concedes that the problems that emerge from a science culture are not problems with the theoretical structures of science but with what flows from these, whether they are metaphysical and epistemological claims or technological advances.

Gilkey is concerned more with the scientific culture than with the discoveries of science in his approach to dialogue.9 This allows him to take the philosophy and technology that emerge from science into consideration.  He can be accused of not really dealing with science in the dialogue.  But, in his defense, he is dealing with the consequences of science that most immediately touch the lives of believers. Although he does formulate a theology of nature in his reflections on creation and providence (which I don’t develop here), I believe that his most important contribution is his reflection on science as a cultural force and how this leads us back to the religious.

Limit questions that arise in science such as the need for an explanation of the existence of the conditions of the possibility of science, the irrationality of the development and consequence of technology and even the explanatory success of science can all potentiality lead us back to a sense of the sacred, a sense of the religious dimension of reality.  How can they not since they make us confront even more forcefully the reality of our own contingency and frailty? 

From the Optic of Creation and Sin

In trying to understand the ambiguity that is present in a science culture, an ambiguity born of the co-existence of the potential for good and evil, I cannot but think of Genesis.  In the first story of creation, we are told of the goodness of all that is, all that has come from God's hand. The authors of the work intended not only to tell of the goodness of creation but of the fact that God's presence can be discerned within the order of creation.  We are told of the human mandate to have dominion over creation, not to dominate but to shepherd and care for all that has come from God's hands. Yet, only a couple of chapters later, we are told of the ambiguity of the human heart.  In the midst of a garden that is filled with what the human needs there enters temptation. One way of understanding this temptation is as a temptation to know, not so much to know creation and what is in the garden but to know good and evil, to know in the sense of  determining and laying hold of good and evil.  The temptation is to be like God, even to be autonomous of God.  In the midst of so much good, the temptation of self-determination, apart from God, leads us to the whole history of sin that is portrayed in the next eight chapters of Genesis.  We see in the story of the Tower of Babel people who were tempted by the possibility of reaching the heavens through the genius of their own construction. We know that these stories are not so much the account of particular events in history as they are an account of the human condition.

St. Paul laments that the good intentions and desires of the human heart do not always translate into good action but rather into the very things that the person wants to avoid. Yet, for the Christian, this ambiguity is but the shadow side of the reality of redemption in Jesus Christ.  We have hope that what begins as being "very good" in the book of Genesis can again be very good in Jesus Christ.  This is the reality of the tension between sin and grace in our world today. 

The Subject as Sinner

The scientists and their science, the engineers and technocrats and their technology are all part of this world described by sin and grace. Their activity of acquiring knowledge about the world and putting it to use takes place within this context. Is it a wonder, therefore, that, in the midst of the good that can arise from our growing knowledge of our world and its possibilities, there is the temptation to ultimate self-determination and autonomy? Should we be surprised to find that we desire to reach the heavens using our own skills and find that our tower is just not high enough? The writers of Genesis recognized these tendencies and predicted the failures to follow. Science has not and will not be able to overcome the ambiguities of the human heart, much less those of society and human culture. As Midgley pointed out, science cannot save its own soul.

Science as a Reminder of the Goodness of Creation and the Need for Redemption

Those scientists who are at the same time believers have found in their work manifestations of the hands of God. The knowledge of the order and intelligibility of the world has led many to worship the One who has brought it into being. Its finitude and contingency has led them to understand it as creation. The possibilities for the good that arise through the growing knowledge of the world cannot be denied. The hungry can be fed.  The sick can be cured. Those in need have the hope of being satisfied through the proper use and distribution of technology.  There is much good that can arise from science and technology.  But this is not really what must be preached because many have come to believe and hope too much from the promise of science and technology.

The Catechism for Filipino Catholics, quoting Reconciliatio et Poenitentia,  reminds us “that the sin of the century is a loss of the sense of sin (RP 18).”  On the other hand, a true sense of sin is grace (CBCP 1997:215). Here is where the power of Gilkey’s reflection on our scientific culture bears much fruit. Gilkey forces us to be reminded of the ambiguities that not only remain, but become even more evident in such a culture.  The tendency to make gods of our selves by aspiring to have control not only of nature but also of human beings, is at the heart of the promises made by science. The uncontrolled growth of technology and the consequent destruction of the environment reveal the limits of what is actually within our control. We are reminded that there are forces operating that are beyond us. At the same time, it reveals the extent of our capacity for destruction. The scientific culture reveals the greed and selfishness that is in the human heart in the way we use science, in the kind of technology we produce and the way this is actually used in the world.

Science places our moral frailty before our eyes. It represents our most valiant effort yet to know our world and to use this knowledge to improve our lives. It has given us unimaginable power over nature and society. Yet, it has not enabled us to overcome our own moral depravity and the brokenness of society but has served to make these even more evident.  And, maybe, that is one of the most significant religious contributions of science.  The reminder of our sinfulness is no less than grace (Gilkey 1981:96-100).  Thus we are reminded that science and technology, while holding the potential for many of the solutions to our development problems do not hold the key to our salvation. They do not even, in and of themselves, hold the definitive solutions to these problems.


The objective of this reflection has been to come to appreciate the significance of the science and religion discussion for the context of our nation. Often, the discussions in the field, while intellectually stimulating, do not always appear immediately relevant. The example of Barbour's work, while we only focused on his typology of the science and religion discussion in this paper, is an example of something that is interesting and quite helpful but does not immediately appeal to the need to do theological reflection that is immediately significant for us. In Gilkey's theology of culture, his examination of a science culture enables him to deal with limit questions, with religious and existential questions that arise from science and technology that give us a sense of the immediacy of the issues for us.  Whether the description of a science culture that we find in his work is true or becoming so for our country, we are made aware of real dangers.  And so, Gilkey reminds us:

We cannot, we absolutely cannot, be heedless or irresponsible in our use of this [science’s] power. . . . Here, then, in the experience of ultimate demand, an ultimate obligation, concerning our use of nature’s power, and so our use of our own power, we apprehend the moral responsibility that accompanies every disclosure of the sacred.  Power, as an ultimate threat and an ultimate demand, is one trace of the sacred in our experience of nature (1995:131).

And so, in claiming this power, we must acknowledge our possession of it and become conscious of our responsibility to use it. In so doing, we must also be aware of the ambiguities that exist in making such claims and the need for something more than science and technology to transcend them. Thus, if there is one lesson to be learned, it is that our science and our technology, whatever they may seem to promise, cannot in themselves save us.  Neither science nor technology can or should tell us who the human being ultimately is.  For this we must turn to a different authority.  Let the definition of the human being that our faith teaches us be the guide to our use of science and technology, rather than allowing science and technology to define the human being.


1. Of course, those who espouse creation science do not try to validate it on these grounds. But a closer look at the dynamics at work in this issue reveals that these motivations are likely to be stronger than the “scientific” basis that most creation scientists may present as the grounds for creation science. On this topic, cf. Gilkey 1985.

2. The idea of the intelligibility of the world is not uniquely Christian. This idea can be found in Greek thought. But for the Greeks, intelligibility is coupled with necessity. Thus, in Greek science the laws governing the natural world are deducible from first principles. Observations play no real substantial role since that which is observed finally becomes the conclusion of deduction.

3. Ted Peters gives a concise overview of Gilkey’s theology and gives the above as the best summary of his method. Cf. Peters 1988:55-62, esp. p. 57. Quote is from Gilkey 1980:8.

4. For concrete examples of this, we need only look at the religions of our indigenous communities who hold on to nature religions.

5. Gilkey, Nature, Reality and the Sacred, p. 84.

6. Gilkey 1981:79. He supports his painting of the picture of “the new scientific man” with a quote from a speech by Glenn Seaborg as quoted by The New York Times of January 17, 1963: “’Man may well have reached that point in history, that state in his development . . . where he has not only been made master of his fate, but where his technology and his morality have come face to face.’ . . . Science has given mankind an opportunity ‘to control and direct our future, our creative evolution… I believe we can be masters of our fate.”

7. At this point one wonders whether we are still dealing with scientists or technocrats.

8. Gilkey, Nature, Reality and the Sacred, p. 91. Although the dominant manifestations of this in Philippine culture are different from those in American culture, the statements are still as descriptive of the former as the latter.

9. This particular approach has led to some misunderstanding about the task that Gilkey is actually undertaking. The failure to drive home the distinctions between the methodology of science and its content from science as a cultural force can lead one to the assumption that Gilkey does not know what constitutes the scientific enterprise. Cf. Wiebe 1989:171-83. I think Wiebe misunderstands the task that Gilkey sets for himself far more than Gilkey misunderstand the task that scientists qua scientists undertake.


Barbour, Ian
1997 Science and Religion: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) a revised and expanded edition of Religion in an Age of Science (1990).
Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP)
1997 Catechism for the Filipino Catholic (Manila: ECCCE/Word and Life Publications).
Gilkey, Langdon
1995 “Nature as the Image of God,” Theology Today 51 (April).
1985 Creationism on Trial (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers).
1981 Religion and the Scientific Future reprinted by (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press/Ross).
1980 Message and Existence: An Introduction to Christian Theology (New York: Seabury, Crossroad).
1976 Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Seabury Press). Reprinted (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000).
Peters, Ted
1988 “Langdon Gilkey: Theologian to the Modern Mind” Dialog 27 (Winter).
Wiebe, Donald
1989 “Is Science Really an Implicit Religion?” Studies in Religion 18/2).


[1] Much has been written on this subject in recent years. One of the best documentary sources of late is The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, ed. Maurice A. Finocchiaro (Berkeley: University of California, 1989). A focused look at the controversy in terms of Scripture is Richard Blackwell’s Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).
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