Exploring the harmony of science and religion: a new perspective on deism’s relevance in the modern world

Added about 6 months ago by David O. Brown

GUEST BLOG: Deism is the belief in God based on rational thought rather than revelation or religious teaching. David O. Brown, author of All Things Come into Being Through Him, explores the interplay between science and religion and offers a new perspective on Christian deism.

It is no surprise that the idea of deism emerged when it did. The more that the scientific revolution made thinkers more adept at explaining the natural world around them and making successful predictions about what was going to happen, the less that they felt the need to appeal to a providential divine hand guiding the world.

Eventually, with increasing confidence in the scientific method, (some) scientists came to assert, not just the decreasing need for a providential divine hand, but the complete superfluity of religion in all its guises (e.g., Richard Dawkins).

Religious thinkers have attempted to counter this assertion in various ways. Some simply reject the scientific method altogether. They agree with Dawkins that science and religion cannot coexist, but they side with religion and dismiss science.

However, convinced of the correctness of the scientific method but also intent on keeping God part of the picture, others have taken different avenues to explain how both science remains able to explain the natural world and God can remain relevant without sacrificing either.

One could argue that science is simply incapable of detecting immaterial causes and so science cannot comment on the existence of immaterial causes. That is, there are genuine immaterial causes that genuinely cause material effects, but science is too limited in its scope to detect them. Exponents of Intelligent Design (ID) argue for something similar. However, this approach is not without its problems. For example, some have criticised that what Intelligent Designers think cannot be explained by science and so need to postulate an immaterial cause, can in fact be explained by science.[1]

Alternatively, one could argue that science is incapable of detecting immaterial causes because God voluntarily relinquishes God’s ability to influence the world and so the apparent absence of divine influence in the world is the result of God’s conscious decision to respect creaturely freedom and/or to cultivate certain values. Exponents of kenosis argue for something similar. Again, this approach is not without its critics. At least as it is traditionally understood, kenosis can lead to a ‘truncated God.’[2]

Alternatively still, one could argue that science is incapable of detecting immaterial causes because God acts ‘in, through, and under’ the laws of nature,[3] and so there is no ‘extra’ immaterial cause that could (or could not) be detected. Exponents of panentheism argue for something similar. Once again, critics have found problems with this approach, arguing that panentheism does not solve the problem of how to account for God’s ‘interaction’ with the material universe, but actually worsens the problem.[4]

However, perhaps more problematic, noble as these attempts might be, any attempt to see science and religion as what might be called ‘conjunctive explanations’[5] (including the aforementioned three) see God (whether unwittingly or not) as nothing more than a ‘super-creature;’ i.e., as another being who exists alongside other beings and who acts upon/with them in a subject/object relationship.[6]

Michael Dodd explains this problem with succinct clarity:

When causality was reduced in modern science to the force that moves the atoms, it seemed to many theologians that, if God were to act in the world, he [sic] would have to act as a force. He would have to move some atoms around.[7]

For God to be understandable in a scientific paradigm, God - and, more importantly, what God does - has to be reduced to ‘transitions of energy, movements of mass, [and/or] acts of generation or destruction.’[8] Put differently, all of the aforementioned attempts to explain the relationship between science and religion assume that divine activity is the ‘cause’ (however understood) of observable change in the universe.

Thus, if the idea that religion and science are in conflict is problematic, then so is the idea that religion and science are complementary. This leaves what Stephen Jay Gould calls ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA):[9] Science and religion are simply two separate categories that have no bearing on the other in any way.

The distinction between ‘origin’ and ‘creation’ is crucial here. The ‘origin’ of the universe is described by the big bang and is simply the first ‘transition of energy’ or ‘movement of mass/atoms’ in a series of transitions/movements that are exhaustively explained by the scientific method. However, the ‘creation’ of the universe is an ontological category described by the metaphysics of participation. For Thomas Aquinas:

God by creation produces things without movement. Now when movement is removed from action and passion, only relation remains . . . Hence creation in the creature is only a certain relation to the Creator as to the principle of its being.[10]

That ‘certain relation’ is participation in God.[11]

Sergei Bulgakov (although critical of Thomas Aquinas) makes a similar distinction:

God the creator is above and outside the causality that exists in the world itself. In this sense, God is not the cause of the world but its creator, just as the world is not the effect of divine causality but God’s creation.[12]

‘Origin/causality’ and ‘creation’ deal with entirely different questions: ‘Origin/causality’ is a scientific question; ‘creation’ is a theological question.

 When all of this is taken together, deism becomes worthy of renewed attention. God is not concerned with the ‘transitions of energy, movements of mass, [and/or] acts of generation or destruction’[13] that describe the history of the universe; if God were, then this would reduce the mystery of God’s activity to the level of created causality and would render God nothing more than a ‘super creature.’ Rather, God is concerned with creation; that is, the ontological realisation/fulfillment of the universe as participation in God.

As many philosophers and theologians recognise, deism leaves two critical problems: God’s apparent ‘disinterest’ in the world, and, following from this, the apparent superfluity of the incarnation. My new book – All Things Come Into Being Through Him – provides a possible solution to both of these apparent problems with a genuine Christian deism.

David O. Brown’s latest book All Things Come Into Being Through Him: A Christology of Creation is available now in paperback from Sacristy Press and as an e-book.

 

[1] See David O. Brown, Incarnation and Neo-Darwinism: Evolution, Ontology, and Divine Activity (Durham: Sacristy Press, 2019), p.33ff.

[2] Andrew Davison, Participation in God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp.136-7, 212

[3] Arthur Peacocke, ‘Articulating God’s Presence in and to the World Unveiled by Science,’ in, Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke (eds.), In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p.143

[4] Sarah Lane Ritchie, ‘Dancing around the Causal Joint: Challenging the Theological Turn in Divine Action Theories’, in, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science Vol.52 No.2 (2017)

[5] See Diarmid A. Finnegan, David H. Glass, Mikael Leidenhag, and David N. Livingstone (eds.), Conjunctive Explanations in Science and Religion (London: Routledge, 2023)

[6] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. 1 (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p.172

[7] Michael Dodds, “Science, Causality, and God: Divine Action and Thomas Aquinas”, in, Angelicum Vol.91 No.1 (2014), p. 22

[8] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (London: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 103

[9] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), p.51

[10] ST i, 45, iii (italics added)

[11] See also Gavin Kerr ‘A Thomistic Metaphysics of Creation’, in, Religious Studies Vol. 48 (2012)

[12] Sergei Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 37 (italics in original)

[13] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (London: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 103


Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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