John F. Haught, a renowned "evolutionary theologian" and expert in science-and-religion dialogue, makes a similar point, specifically in terms of the encounter between theology and Darwinian evolutionary theory. The broader agenda of this lucid book is to bring scientific and theological perspectives on human origins and destiny into a closer, more fruitful, and non-reductionist dialogue that respects the prerogatives and concerns of both modes of inquiry; since Haught writes as a theologian and not as a scientist, his special concern is to expand and enrich contemporary Christian thought through this encounter with evolutionary science.
John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life (WJK, 2010)
In essence, Haught argues that both scientists and theologians need to exercise "methodological modesty" when faced with perspectives outside their sphere of specialization. He writes: "By any acceptable definition, scientific method is not cut out to answer ultimate theological questions" (p. 35). Early modern scientists, such as Newton and Boyle, may have woven a bit of theology into their theories, but this move makes no sense in the contemporary setting. Natural sciences must operate within strict methodological limits. Science "is no longer concerned with ultimate explanations, purposes, or intentions. It is not permitted to appeal to the idea of divine creation or infinite goodness at any point in its inquiry" (ibid.).
Does theology operate within analogous constraints? In a sense, yes. But in another sense, not quite. To be sure, theologians cannot supervene the frameworks and findings of the natural sciences. Still, it seems, from Haught's vantage point, that theology is able to listen, to take in the results of the natural sciences and theologize about them. (Indeed, that's the point of the book). The relationship of theology to science is not reciprocal; science as such cannot take in theological claims into its researches in any fashion.
Take, for example, the question of the biodiversity spawned by millions of years of natural selection. Haught writes:
Theology, on the other hand, by definition wants to know the ultimate reason why things are the way they are. Consequently, theology must never cease looking for deeper reasons than science can provide about why life on earth diversifies into so many groups, phyla, species, subspecies, and individuals (ibid.).
He goes on to suggest that a rich biodiversity that emerges over millions of years in a painstakingly slow process somehow may serve to broaden our notion of God, in contrast to the deity of earlier cosmologies, wherein the universe is just thousands, not billions, of years old and God creates each species through a discrete, special action.
Two main things about Haught's position here strike me as significant. The first, for me, is not particularly controversial, but the second raises some questions. On the one hand, like myriad theologians before him -- and many pre-modern ones, I would emphasize, such as Thomas Aquinas -- Haught accepts the principle the notion of causality is not unequivocal when we discuss the God-world relationship. I don't know if the classic dual causality schema quite fits what he's trying to do in this book (still trying to figure that one out). But he clearly has no problem claiming that divine causality operates at a different register from world occurrence at the finite, empirical level, and he advocates a non-competitive epistemology as concomitant with this position. Haught affirms that divine creation and providence unfolds indirectly, through creaturely media -- that God "makes things make themselves." Consequently, the fortuitous character of natural selection is not a problem for the theologian. "Natural selection of random variations is a good scientific answer to this question [of how life ramifies across the ages], but isn't it possible that both science and theology can jointly render intelligible the 'mysterious mysteries' without being rivals?" (ibid.). On the face of it, this position suggests that scientific and theological discourses have no basis for competition, as they are incommensurable with each other.
|A herd of elephants in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania|
By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (via Wikimedia Commons)
To draw out the broader conclusions of this move: "Reality" is multifaceted, and causality is not univocal. Haught offers an analogy. What explains the existence of a book? One can point to the fact that a book is the result of a run through a printing press. But at a deeper level, and without doing violence to the narrower explanation, one can point out that a book emerges because a publisher anticipates a certain manuscript will resonate with a readership and thus decides to support the project. Neither explanation can be reduced to the other and neither contradicts the other. Indeed, both answers are equally valid. Such an anecdote might well serve as a textbook example illustrating an Aristotelian-Thomist account of multiple types of causality (though that's certainly not quite where Haught wishes to take it).
Still, the analogy raises a couple worries for me, when we move into the question of theological and scientific "explanations" for natural processes. As for the analogy itself, the naturalist (or materialist) can turn it on its head pretty easily: All these supposedly different kinds of causes for the book's existence can be mapped out in a chain of strictly efficient causes: 1) author has idea and presents project to publisher; 2) publisher has a sense of the potential marketability of the work and chooses to support it, thereby appropriating the resources necessary; 3) the various phases of editing, proofing and typesetting culminate in the physical artifact (etc., etc.).
There is another piece to this presentation that gives me pause. Haught invokes Tillich's notion that theology, in distinction from the empirical and technical sciences, explores the "depth dimension" grounding and suffusing all of created reality. But this suggests to me that theological accounts of creation are a kind of metaphysical description. Can theology function as a sort of causal explanation for why things are the way they are -- indeed, for why anything exists at all -- but simply at a register that transcends empirical data and analysis? To be sure, as becomes when one reads into later chapters in his book, Haught has anticipated the limitations of the language of causality to describe the relationship between God and creation. Drawing upon Tillich's descriptions of God as the "ground of being" and the "abyss" undergirding and suffusing all creation, Haught affirms that, ultimately, the relationship of Creator to creature is a mystery, perhaps best approached in the register of poetry and metaphor. This affirmation is of a piece with a major constructive goal of Haught's book -- deconstructing the fixation on "design" that afflicts both the evolutionary naturalists and the Intelligent Design advocates.
Be that as it may, I still question whether Haught has engineered a metaphysical end-around designed to trump the materialist critique of Christian theism. That move may be in order; still, I wonder how effectively it represents the radical, counter-intuitive and Christian faith in God as Creator. The appeal to depth notwithstanding, doesn't Haught's God still function as a sort of explanatory hypothesis?(Alas, it seems impossible to hold my polemical Barthian urges at bay for too long!). What's more, if that is the case, is it really fair to say the scientific naturalist and the Christian theist have nothing to fear from each other? Having made peace on the main floor of the house, each agreeing to occupy a delineated space, won't the theologian and the scientist potentially take up arms again in the attic -- or, to keep with the Tillichian framework, the basement? If the theologian is staking out grounds from a metaphysical perspective, it seems the scientist (in this case, a rational skeptic or empiricist) has every right to challenge the theological system at the metaphysical level. Are we okay with that? But what if scientific and theological accounts of reality -- even if they are talking about the same cosmic reality -- are incommensurable in a more radical sort of way?