Tuesday 22 December 2020

In 1905, a young patent clerk published four papers that now function as foundations of modern physics. His name: Albert Einstein. In so doing, Einstein sparked several scientific revolutions, introducing the Special Theory of Relativity which reimagined space and time, finding a solution to the problematic photoelectric effect that set Quantum Mechanics into motion, and proving the existence of the atom. It is difficult to imagine the surge of creativity that flowed through him during this annus mirabilis (miracle year), a period he later described as one in which ‘a storm broke loose in my mind.’[1] In a single year, this amateur scientist irrevocably changed the entire landscape of physics forever.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls such a process a ‘scientific revolution.’[2] Kuhn understood scientific change as a revolution in which the very foundations of the old paradigm are dismantled and replaced with an entirely new framework of understanding. Einstein’s work on Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are prime examples of scientific revolutions, each of which utterly overthrew the physics that had gone before.

Christian Theology, on the other hand, treads a far less treacherous developmental path. Though there have been periods of great upheaval – the Protestant Reformation being an obvious example – Christianity’s core claims are rather unlikely to change. For many, this is part of the appeal of religion. Ancient truths are cherished, preserved, and translated into moral messages for the modern era. Though tradition is tweaked over time, the kernel Christian confession remains the same.

In many ways, these developmental journeys are the biggest differences between science and religion. Each has its unique methodology which shapes the evolution of each discipline in different ways. Whilst theology progresses by virtue of moderate modifications, science is rapidly and radically revolutionised. These (and other) differences have led many to assume that science and religion cannot interact positively. Richard Dawkins, for example, vociferously opposes religion on the grounds that its very spirit is opposed to the open-ended and flexible structure of scientific enquiry.[3] This is a mistake.

Alister McGrath offers a more constructive perspective. He argues that we live in an age of multiple rationalities. As opposed to a theory of a single, universal rationality, McGrath moves the debate towards a more pluralistic approach which recognises multiple, situated rationalities, describing his position as one of epistemological pluralism. With regard to science and religion, though each discipline is independent and retains methodological integrity, the rational structures therein are domain-specific, and therefore do not conflict. Science and religion can, therefore, enter into a fruitful dialogue without fear that either side will negate any core claims of the other, as they employ different operational rationalities.[4]

The question remains: how can physics and theology best engage in such constructive dialogue? Twentieth century existentialist theologian Paul Tillich offers an interesting, and underappreciated, perspective on this important question. He argues that theology should be carried out in accordance with his ‘method of correlation’, in which existential questions that arise in specific cultural situations are correlated with answers of theological affirmation.[5] The method of correlation is communicative, as it aims to translate theological truths into the symbols of the culture into which those truths are to be received. It is also constructive, insofar as it offers new, culturally conditioned insights which depend upon both the knowledge and the zeitgeist of the historical situation in which the reconstruction occurs. In the case of science-and-religion, insights from science can be used to shape theology.[6] This is theologically appropriate when cultural concerns are used as a means through which the core of theology is better understood. It is important that secular endeavours do not claim ultimacy, but rather help clarify that which theology recognises as ultimate.

In the context of physics and theology, the way forward is clear. Indeed, it is a road down which many have already travelled. Physics provides the most accurate and reliable method for understanding the fine-structure of the natural world. Its insights should be treasured. Without physics, humanity would not know that we inhabit a small rock in a distant corner of an expansive cosmos; we would still think of ourselves as living at the centre of creation. If physics is used as a vehicle through which theology can be revisited, then it can help to hone theology and, ultimately, bring fresh and fruitful conclusions.

In my own work, I analyse our best physical theories about the nature of time and try to draw metaphysical conclusions. Using temporal frameworks provided by physics, I re-examine the Christian doctrine of salvation traditionally understood. Einstein’s Theories of Relativity indicate that time may not actually pass, and that reality is comprised of a four-dimensional ‘block universe’. In such a universe, genuine change is difficult to accommodate. In so far as salvation requires change, i.e. from a state of fallenness to a state of redemption, the block universe presents a problem. How can we understand salvific change in a changeless universe? I am working on an answer.[7] In other words, I am using science as a vehicle through which I can arrive at a deeper level of theological understanding.

Theology may not have miracle years, revolutionaries, and paradigm shifts, at least in the same way that physics does. Nevertheless, Christian theology can benefit from these developmental shifts and the acquisition of new knowledge when it engages constructively with physics. As long as core claims are not clouded, the resultant conversation can bring insights that are more than the sum of its parts.

[1] Kumar, Manjit. Quantum. (London: Icon Books, 2009), p.33.

[2] Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[3] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. (London: Transworld Publishers, 2007).

[4] McGrath, Alister. The Territories of Human Reason: Science and Theology in an Age of Multiple Rationalities. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[5] Tillich, Paul. (1953) Systematic Theology I. (Digswell Place: James Nisbet, 1953), p.70.

[6] Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology I. (Digswell Place: James Nisbet, 1953), p.21.

[7] Qureshi-Hurst, Emily & Pearson, Anna. “Quantum Mechanics, Time, and Theology: Indefinite Causal Order and a New Approach to Salvation.” Zygon 55, no. 3 (2020): 663-84.


Emily Qureshi-Hurst is a D.Phil candidate in Theology (Science and Religion) at the University of Oxford. She is an interdisciplinary researcher, working primarily in the philosophy of time and its relation to the philosophy of religion. Emily is also interested in the relationship between Christian theology and other areas of physics, primarily Quantum Mechanics and Cosmology.


Photo by Sung Jin Cho on Unsplash

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