Science and Theology as Non-Competitive

Many people today, even believing Christians themselves, would describe the Christian idea of salvation as primarily individual, spiritual, and other-worldly. Salvation, for these folks, is something that happens to a believer who turns her life over to Jesus.

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But there are many theologians who have argued that this iteration fails to capture the expansiveness of the notion of salvation in the Christian tradition. One of the theologians who argues this well is Edward Schillebeeckx, the 20th century Catholic Flemish priest. For him, salvation is not only individual, spiritual, and other-worldly, but it is also social, material, and this-worldly. This comprehensive vision of Christian salvation turns on a deep faith in the centrality of the incarnation and provides the conditions for the possibility of a rich dialogue with the sciences. Riffing upon the traditional Christian maxim, “no salvation outside the church,” originating with the 3rd century bishop Cyprian of Carthage, Schillebeeckx posits “no salvation outside the world”. With this formulation, Schillebeeckx emphasizes that the secular is the realm of God’s saving action. This approach preserves the distinction between God and creation but, at the same time, rejects any competition between the divine creator and creation. Similarly, material and spiritual realities are non-competitive. It is this kind of approach that allows for the rich Christian notion of the incarnation—the idea that God is fleshly in the person of Jesus Christ—and allows for the belief that this person can be both fully God and fully human (not half-God and half-human). Following from this kind of foundational belief about materiality and divinity, theologians can claim that God need not (and does not) halt or alter the laws of nature in order to act in history and, furthermore, that the material world mediates and expresses the reality of God. This deeply incarnational trust in materiality as revelatory of God is a necessary theological starting point for any dialogue between Christian theology and science.

However, this understanding of material need not suggest that everything that exists is holy and good, for certainly some human realities are unjust and therefore do not mediate God positively, but for Schillebeeckx, even evil situations communicate something of the reality of God insofar as God is present in absence. In other words, injustice is often experienced by people as ‘that which should not be’ and therefore communicates to the experiencer: this is not God, God is something other than this situation here.

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Belief in God, therefore, cannot and should not act as a resistance to the insights of human science. Instead, the insights of science reveal something of the way that God expresses Godself in history. Even further, salvation (the eschatological fulfillment of the created material world), though brought about by God, does not happen without the free participation of humans in history. The eschatological transformation of the world, for which we await, does not discard the world as it is and replace it with a radically new world. Instead, this world, this history that we experience now is brought to fulfillment as something that is truly new, but also continuous with what is.

These claims position any insight gleaned about humanity, from biological anthropology or elsewhere, as ripe for theological reflection because humans have the task of bringing about salvation through their own resources as graced by God. This is not to claim that human beings are capable of self-redemption, but rather through the non-competitive autonomy of creation, humanity has been graced with the resources to mediate eschatological transformation of the world. The systematic observation of the material world by humans, i.e., the practice of science, is non-competitive with God-talk, i.e., theology, especially when we frame salvation as participatory. The eschatological transformation of the world, in which we participate, requires observation of reality, systematic reflection, and human action. The practice of science can be a part of this.