Review of Gregerson and van Huyssteen’s “Rethinking Theology and Science”

Review of Gregerson and van Huyssteen’s “Rethinking Theology and Science”

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Review: Niels Henrik Gregersen and J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, eds., Rethinking Theology and Science: Six Models for the Current Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) viii+ 240 pp.  

Reviewer: Paul Allen (Ph.D. cand., University Saint-Paul, Ottawa, Canada)  

Theology and the natural sciences are engaged in dialogue during exciting times. But the excitement is felt differently, according to the different disciplines. In the introduction to this edited collection of essays, Wentzel van Huyssteen and Niels H. Gregersen comment that:  

 …this ancient and enduring dialogue has managed to successfully transform itself in our present Western culture, into a sustained and     dynamic contemporary discourse…(p.1)

But, this discourse has confronted the problem of pluralism, which defies easy solutions. The question is: does Ian Barbour go far enough in identifying four overlapping perspectives of conflict, independence, dialogue and integration? Doesn’t a more fundamental cognitive pluralism undercut the relevance of these options? If so, what could this mean?

In this review, I will examine how the six essays in this volume expand the boundaries set by the critical realist position that the ‘first generation’ scientist-theologians pioneered. The possible directions of this expansion is the book’s raison d’etre. By necessity, this review treats six different proposals, given each essay’s specific thrust. First, I will summarize each proposal, and then make an overall assessment.


A construction of connections between the scientific disciplines and theology is under way. The shape of this revision is best known in the work of the well known trio of scientist-theologians Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne, whom the editors credit as “[breaking] through the modernist polarization of religion and science by defending the thesis that … religion makes important and novel cognitive claims…”  (p.2) The purpose of this book is to further revise this insight in light of enduring contradictions. This revision is necessitated by the fact that Polkinghorne, Peacocke and Barbour are each self- identified “critical realists,” but each of them comes to different conclusions about key issues. (p.2) These include such indisputably vital questions as God’s nature. The editors state:  

In following the lead of our first generation of scientist-theologians, we are taking on anew the task of rethinking, and remodeling, the dialogue between science and theology under the challenge of a growing cognitive pluralism. (p.3)  

But, true to the pluralist nature of contemporary philosophical reflection, the authors “do not share a common view on science, or theology, or on the best viable way to pursue this dialogue” (p.6) even though they all agree that good reasons exist for furthering the dialogue. Ironically, perhaps, this book presents the reader with a decision to make: which model is best? This in itself challenges the postmodernist ethos of letting diversity thrive.  

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this work is the explicit philosophical nature of the issues. This will discourage some – the writing is necessarily dense owing to the methodological contents. However, I believe that an explicit advertence to philosophy marks a welcome sophistication in science-theology discussions. Also welcome is the fact that each essay is a development arising from earlier position papers that were circulated among the contributors beforehand. This is reflected in a certain cohesion among the six proposals.  

Wentzel van Huyssteen kicks things off with an essay entitled “Postfoundationalism in Theology and Science: Beyond Conflict and Consonance.” This essay coheres with material in his book Duet or Dual: Theology and Science in a Postmodern World (Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 1998). The reader is immediately roused by the postmodern issue of our rationality or rationalities. How can claims of a single structure of human consciousness, which typify natural theology that is cognizant of science, deal with historically conditioned human reason across different communities, traditions and cultures?  

van Huyssteen’s strategy for dealing with these perils is to defend a ‘postfoundational model of rationality.’ A postfoundational view bypasses the alleged vagueness of critical realism. It avoids ontological claims while acknowledging the meaning of critical realism at a practical level. A postfoundational view incorporates the implications of postmodern thought while judging epistemic relativism and dogmatic deconstructionism as unable to reckon with the common operations of reason.

Based on Harold Brown’s Rationality (London: Routledge, 1990) and Nicholas Rescher’s growing corpus of work in the same area, van Huyssteen makes a concise and well-rounded argument for his position. He is convincing in stating his core insight, which is that:  

[t]he hazy intersection between the diverse fields of theology and the other sciences is therefore not in the first place to be determined by exploring possible methodological parallels or degrees of consonance between theology and science. What should be explored first is a common and shared resource found in a richer notion of human rationality… (p.40)

This ‘richer notion’ is triadic: human rationality is cognitive, evaluative and pragmatic. It is contextual yet broad. We unceasingly explore new dimensions of reality yet we experience our exercise of reason as a unity. Moreover, for the post-foundationalist, the unity of human rationality cannot be captured by “meta-narratives,” or an appeal to truth.  

van Huyssteen’s proposal contains a number of finer nuances that I appreciated from this well-written summary. However, it also raises a number of urgent questions. What is interesting is that the questions his essay raises are associated with problems contained in the other essays. I suspect that there is a reason for this – more below.  

The second essay by Danish theologian Kees van Kooten Niekerk is a presentation of a “truncated version of critical realism.” Note that Niekerk is the only one to hold on to critical realism as the best available framework to mediate the sciences and theology. Although he wants to modify the meaning of critical realism, Niekerk believes that it “presupposes metaphysical realism… the world we meet… exists as a physical world independently of our experience.” (p. 52) However, in a footnote that should be in the body of the text, Niekerk claims that his presumption of metaphysical realism avoids the problems associated with claims of correspondence between language and physical objects. So, Niekerk uses Putnam’s ‘internal realism’ as a way of updating critical realism in light of the intersubjective features of the critical attitude. He also applies the thought of Ernan McMullin in order to base realism in a set of successful, stable criteria for evaluating scientific theories individually.  

Niekerk distances himself from some natural theology because of its accent on the theoretical and its’ neglect of the practical, existential character of theology. This is a positive point that Niekerk makes in modifying the terms and reference of ‘critical realism’ in theological discourse. In theology, critical realism operates from within the ‘internal’ standpoint of faith, whereas scientific realism operates from a more ‘external’ point of view. Ultimately, critical realism is the viewpoint that science and theology know about the same real world with shared limitations that mark the acts of knowing.

The third contribution comes from Willem Drees, a well known thinker in the field for favouring a form of philosophical naturalism open to the ‘wildness’ of religious reflection and human experience in general. Drees advocates a position that is somewhat unique in the science-theology dialogue, given the history of animosity between scientific naturalism and theism. So, it comes as no surprise that Drees repeats his position already laid out in his 1996 book Religion, Science and Naturalism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press). His interests are with what he calls “scientific images.” Religious reflection is coloured by our image of science since “Science offers the best cognitive images of the natural world and […] humans are not exempt from the natural world.” (p. 87)  

Naturalism is consonant with religion, but it ensures the integrity of the natural world (p. 95). Drees’ challenge to more traditional religious reflection is that this scientific image of the world denies the plausibility of “supplementing natural reality with additional supernatural determining factors.” (p. 94) Note that Drees uses the words “supernatural” with “determining” here to communicate traditional natural theology’s mistaken attribution of universal omnipotence and omniscience to God, a “God of the philosophers.”  

Drees introduces several important distinctions that expand on his naturalist stance. The crucial one is that God is a nontemporal notion, given the naturalist image of science and science’s inability to argue for the self-sufficiency of the universe (p. 95). I wish Drees had developed this further, since it seems to be extremely pivotal to his argument. Religious traditions and theological views provide meaning and language to these images, more or less in the via negativa tradition – various ways that end up saying what God is not. In contrast to scientific images, “manifest images” evolve according to cultural patterns and successive religious ‘limit’ questions, giving rise to the sense of the mystical. The specificity of religious questions, according to Drees, is based in the human sense of wonder, and a sense of gratitude for belonging to this reality. Whether wonder and gratitude are really separable from the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic set of traditions, I rather doubt, but I do not quibble with Drees’s naturalist starting point, though it could just as well imply non-naturalist answers. But, Drees is committed to argue for religious naturalism that highlights the theological locus of the dialogue without undue abstraction. Religious reflection should thus be free to imagine prophetic “views of life” (p.117).  

Eberhard Herrmann, the fourth contributor, picks up this theme of ‘views of life’ where Drees leaves off, in order to describe ‘a pragmatic approach’ to religion and science. Herrmann outlines his more cautious approach in contrast to the other contributors:  

to propose a division of labour between the sciences and views of life means that the question whether integration between science and religion is possible, changes character. As a rule, the issue of integration is considered to be a matter of statements. This approach, however, I want to question. (p. 126)  

While Herrmann allows for a ‘weak metaphysical realism,’ (along with Niekerk) he terms his pragmatic approach ‘non-integrative.’ He embraces the postmodern turn away from the question of truth to the question of value. For Herrmann, the twin problems of pluralism and the verification of religion’s cognitive basis confound a more integrative approach. Truth is seriously constrained by operative conceptual frameworks, and so its connection with meaning is contingent on conceptual means. Truth is understood to be suspiciously linked with certitude, a Cartesian throwback that permeates the other contributions in this book. Herrmann also holds truth to be something distinguished from both objectivity and rationality – the latter still hold pragmatic meaning.  

Herrmann sees his proposal as a ‘third way’ between relativism and some sort of absolutism, for which he invokes the opinions of ‘fundamentalists’ to contrast with the virtues of his model. Pragmatism is here understood in line with Hilary Putnam’s philosophical position of ‘internal realism’. Thus, there is a ‘division of labour’ among the disciplines whereby religious stories and theological reflection best express the meaning of life when they focus their attention on conceptual elaboration. On the other hand, they violate the pragmatic principle when they attempt to make knowledge claims, especially concerning the non-human world (p. 154). I found some problems with Herrmann’s statement that an adequate ‘view of life’ should account for religion “such that people recognize their faith in it” (p. 122) while later stating that “the question of God’s existence is a non-issue.” (p. 141) Quite obviously, most people of faith certainly do see God’s “existence,” as the issue!  

Notwithstanding its’ problematic directions, I think that Herrmann’s alliance of religion with stories, besides being historically verifiable, is an accurate wager on the merits of a hermeneutical style of reflection in the science-religion dialogue. Herrmann thinks this has negative implications for science-theology interaction. I am not sure he is right, so long as the issue of the relationship of text and truth claims is evaluated in terms of a complex rationality. Indeed, this is what hermeneutical thinkers like Ricoeur probe in their work.  

The fifth contributor, Fraser Watts, attempts a somewhat more complex appreciation of science-theology interaction, though he too remains at a highly descriptive level. Watts opts for complementarity. He leads off his essay with the insight that theology should not be recast as another form of observational knowledge (which is how Nancey Murphy, among others, uses Lakatosian research program methodology to re-conceive theology). Discourse about God is utterly unsuited to a Lakatosian construction. Like Herrmann, Watts argues that religion and theology concern self-knowledge. To wit, Watts observes that: “very few people have been led to conclude there must be a God on the basis of fine-tuning [in the universe]” (p. 173)  

What is interesting is that Watts’ essay is devoted to a rather creative proposal that mirrors the style of natural theology which the editors believe to be under scrutiny. The essence of Watts’ proposal is for science and theology to complement one another as descriptions about reality that are analogous to how brain processes and mental operations are described in relation to human rationality. In comparison to the other essays, this is a more constructive proposal. It conjures up the tradition of analogy in the mode of proofs for the existence of God. And, despite adopting the terminology of complementarity, Watts does not totally abandon critical realism.

Niels Gregersen’s “contextual coherence theory” for science-theology dialogue rounds out the volume. Gregeresen’s argument parallels Herrmann’s cautious tone and van Huyssteen’s post-foundationalist approach. According to Gregersen, science and theology interface where the consequences of science have been interpreted in cultures. Theology functions constructively when it attends to culture and religious experience – so much so, that the coherence model for science-theology dialogue explicitly avoids what Gregersen calls “chains of arguments” about knowledge. Gregersen’s target here is philosophical foundationalism. Scientific realism, inasmuch as it emphasizes cumulative progress over comparative method, suffers from a similar naïveté.  

Following Rescher’s cr tique of empiricist and foundationalist positions, Gregersen highlights the implications of cognitive pluralism for constructing a worldview with theology as the servant of scientific and cultural dynamics:  

While the science-theology debate can hardly change the self-definition of the sciences, it does decisively change the world-view interpretations of science; the dialogue makes a difference in the way we perceive the character of the world that we inhabit…Theology re-describes itself as it goes along re-describing scientific findings and theories. (p. 188)  

Coherence theory is realist in the sense of grappling with the pluralist character of understanding reality. Echoing Watts, theology is not restricted to function scientifically in the way Nancey Murphy construes theology. But, I wonder whether this corrective to Murphy’s proposals adequately addresses the issue of theology’s lowly stature? Coherence theory appears to block any theological entitlement to explain reality. It also rules out metaphysical unity:  

Coherence theory does not imply a program for a unification or homogenization of all kinds of knowledge [yet it] insists that all pieces of human inquiry should be brought into ‘a characteristic relationship’ to one another. (p. 188)  

As a test case to show the adequacy of coherence theory as a model in practice, Gregersen examines scientific and theological perspectives concerning Darwinian theory as they exist along five levels: data, theories, thought models, metaphors and worldviews. In summary, Gregersen’s proposal “allows for a cognitive plurality of theories and visions within a common framework of rationality…the expectation that science and theology should be put together in one overarching language appears to be exaggerated.” (p. 228)  


I am struck by the similarities among the contributors, especially between van Huyssteen, Drees, Herrmann and Gregersen. They should all be heeded for articulating this insight: the first generation of scientist-theologians have not adequately defined critical realism, and serious implications result from this. In fact, this problem was foreshadowed in an exchange between Arthur Peacocke and several respondents 14 years ago in the journal Religion and Intellectual Life (cf. vol. 11, 4: 1985)!  

Where I disagree with the point of departure of this book concerns their judgment that contemporary pluralism constitutes a warrant for discarding or restricting the meaning of critical realism. In accepting the “challenge of postmodern pluralism”, a new meta-narrative is decreed, whereby the meaning and relevance of meta-narratives is ruled out. I cannot help but be struck by the limitations that this imposes (except in the case of Watts), in spite of the obvious creativity and care shown in each proposal.  

Of greater consequence, this book does not persuade me that critical realism has been sufficiently understood or explored to justify a departure from it. The kernel of the reasoning behind this move seems to lie in citing a cognitive basis to pluralism. In the introduction, the editors refer to a disunity “even within the sciences [as] a matter of fact” (p. 4). van Huyssteen states that “[t]he historicist turn in philosophy of science initiated by Thomas S. Kuhn has thoroughly replaced the foundationalism of the classical model and has opened the way to various attempts at non- or anti-foundationalist models of rationality…” (p. 21). This indicates a sweeping generalization that takes its cue from one particular interpretation of Kuhn’s legacy in the socio-historical critiques of science and the humanities. I would say that this assumption, however, needs to be verified and modified. Careful commentators of Kuhn’s work have analysed and evaluated his theory of (incommensurate) scientific paradigms with a critical eye on the historical record and found the theory lacking in a variety of ways. (See for instance the following edited volumes for such careful analysis: J. R. Brown, ed. Scientific Rationality: The Sociological Turn. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1984; Ernan McMullin, ed. The Social Dimensions of Science. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992; and P. Horwich, ed. World Changes: Thomas Kuhn and the Nature of Science. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1993.) If the recent “Sokal affair” in the United States has shown anything, it is that real limits in the socio-historical critique of science surely exist.  

Apart from the flawed execution of a corrective solution to critical realism, the main feature of this book is the effort to fashion models of rationality and discourse broad enough to mediate science and religion in a pluralist world. This is the book’s strength. Thus, this volume distinguishes itself in the science-religion literature quite well. I would recommend this book as a worthwhile volume for a graduate seminar in science and religion with the following 2 provisos:  

a) that the students possess a fairly high level of philosophical competence with the capacity to critique the proposed arguments, and  

b) that this text be complemented by either a defense of “traditional critical realism” (Polkinghorne’s Reason and Reality or Peacocke’s Intimations of Reality) or even better, a good text in natural theology (for example: Mascall, de Lubac, Hartshorne or Pannenberg).

While this text is laudable for introducing philosophy into the science-theology dialogue more forcefully, its’ aim to expand the “critical” at the expense of the “realism” in critical realism is not thought through, despite the fact that most of the contributors make concessions to critical realism in terms of what the phrase seeks to communicate about knowing and the known. Niekerk and Watts are perhaps exceptions to this criticism. Drees’s proposal is more complex, and would require a separate review just in terms of this issue.

For the most part, postmodernism is simply assumed. The result is that many philosophical traditions are simply ignored. There is evident a need to re-invent the philosophical wheel. Thus, Aristotle gets only 2 mentions and Plato, none. Even more shocking is the virtual silence about Kant and Descartes. Nothing either on 20th century phenomenology, existentialism, or critical theory, which are philosophical movements containing enormous relevance to this subject. Husserl’s interpretation of the sciences alone is central to the contemporary situation. But, perhaps this is asking too much for a group whose goal is to merely outline alternatives to critical realism. In summary, this dialectical positioning of arguments for and against critical realism comes too soon. I am convinced that we need to first rethink what critical realism really means in the science-theology dialogue. This would likely include many elements of these six proposals. It would definitely pursue the issue of rationality, and probably draw on the significance of consciousness and its polymorphic dimensions.  

In assessing this book, Gregersen’s quote, which expresses opposition to an “overarching language” reflects a general ambivalence towards metaphysics. Niekerk, who defends metaphysical possibilities by announcing that critical realism pre-supposes metaphysical realism, provides postmodernists with just the kind admission that realists are accused of deploying. Logically then, Herrmann’s pragmatic view sees realism as the incorrect belief that reality “exists independently of us” (pp. 132, 137). On several occasions, objectivity is presented as the infallible “God’s eye” view that is independent of mind. But for contemporary realists, this is a caricature of realism. Nevertheless, most of the book’s contributors extend a form of opposition between subject and object by adopting a mixture of subjective idealism and conceptually centered reflection. The shadow of Kantian idealism lingers over the entire book as a result, as it does, albeit differently in Barbour, Peacocke and Polkinghorne. The use of “models” in the subtitle is a clue to this book’s general philosophical direction. While models ordinarily aim to explain in both science and theology, these six contributors maintain that description is the highest methodological knowledge possible.  

With such an opposition between subject and object firmly entrenched as a philosophical habit, it is difficult to see an integration of science and theology as real or actual. It may remain in the realm of ideas as ideal. The only allowable theological route is a via negativa that keeps God separate from the various contingent languages and traditions of the religiously committed. God must remain hidden. But, this version of what I am calling “negative theology” differs from its medieval predecessors by ignoring the significance of the spiritual life and the varieties of religious experience.

As an effort by science-theology thinkers to philosophically update this field, this book meets a theological block. The courage of van Huyssteen and others to try out Rescher’s triadic theory of rationality or Putnam’s internal realism should get some credit, however. With regard to philosophically literate theologians, the paucity of reference to luminaries like Pannenberg, Tillich, Lonergan or Rahner is revealing. It reinforces the impression that theology is a cognitively weak discipline owing to its standpoint in faith. Religious faith is portrayed as making limited cognitive claims that are intelligible exclusively in terms of psychology, sociology and the human sciences. Hence, little effort is given to understand what implications might originate from theological notions such as divine creation.

A final comment: the combined descriptive language and idealist philosophies of rationality could be exploited as evidence by critics of the science-theology dialogue to question the legitimacy and relevance of religious faith. If this a reasonable anticipation, then this book’s promise of philosophical sophistication has fallen short. Assuming that the secularism of western cultures still forms an important backdrop to the dialogue, this book’s appreciation of pluralism forces these contributors to engage a rather limited range of rethinking. But, their critical diagnosis of critical realism’s poverty of meaning and their search for alternatives through models of rationality are refreshing advances nonetheless.