Religion and Science: Integration

Thanks to Carol McPhee for her brief summary of Process Theology. 

In dialogue, science and religion share insights from each field which can enrich or correct the other. Ian Barbour’s Integration takes dialogue a step further, by seeking to create a synthesis of scientific ideas with religious belief.

As examples of integration, Elizabeth Johnson refers to Teilhard de Chardin and Process Theology (see ‘Ask the Beasts’, pages 10-12).

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who worked to understand evolution and faith. His scientific field work explored the early origins of the human race; his imaginative, mystic writings explored the evolutionary nature of the world and the cosmos.

• Teilhard’s scientific and religious passions came together in his conviction that God works in and through the evolving world. He believed the world is always pressing forward towards its final convergence, in the ‘Omega Point’ – the final resolution of time and space, over which Jesus Christ reigns in love. All human efforts to move toward the Omega Point are holy acts.

•  Teilhard’s work has been criticized for giving the evolutionary process an almost linear sense of direction (instead of the messy way evolution lurches forward). He has also been criticized for giving more importance to human destiny than to the future of the whole world. However, his work made a lasting contribution to integrating science with faith in a time when the two existed in watertight compartments.

Process theology has been shaped by fundamental insights from both evolutionary science and Christian religious thought. It developed from the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) and John Cobb (b. 1925). Today process theologians continue to debate the nature of God, the relationship of God and the world, and immortality.

God’s immanence: Process theologians understand God to be immanent within the world, rather than directing the world from beyond.

God in relationship: Process theologians stress God’s continuing, dynamic relationship with all created beings.

God is the source of novelty in the world: Process theology might be understood to refer to all forms of theology that, for the foundation of existence, look to creative activity rather than passive substance, and to evolutionary becoming rather than changeless enduring.

God’s power is the power of love and persuasion: God does not control the world or dominate its creatures – including humans – but God’s process works to lure us into the future.

Now let’s look more deeply at how Process Theology tries to integrate
religious thought with evolutionary science:

• Human knowledge is regarded as an “organically integrated self-sustaining whole.” No one field is to dominate others. (Rescher, p. 1) *

• The idea of solid and separate things in nature is an illusion. Material objects are made up of energy “in an ongoing state of flux and motion.” What we see as a thing is no more than a momentary stability within endless change, endless process toward something else. (Rescher, p. 30) *

• Since things change, their very nature must include some force or impetus toward internal growth and development. Whitehead suggested that creativity is the fundamental reality.

• A process is a set of related changes. A process is “an organized family of occurrences that are systematically linked to one another either causally or functionally.” It combines what exists in the present with what has come from the past and passes this on into the future. ( Rescher p. 38)  *

• But other processes interacting with the first process may bring new possibilities to bear, so the future is not determined by the past, but always indeterminate, in the way that a jazz solo is dependent on the past, but moves on with each note to something new. (This is the novelty Johnson mentions.)  Mutations are an example of random occurrences that make the future indeterminate. People have choice and free will or creative spontaneity.

• The world (universe) is one entire unified process (theologians identify this with God) consisting of multiple millions of subordinate smaller processes. These subordinate processes influence each other, they interrelate, have an impact on the development of other processes. Process is not confined to living entities, but to every entity.

• Even the natural laws are in process, because ways of order change as nature evolves. The only permanence is change itself.

Whitehead’s hope was to include every part of human knowledge in his cosmology, and so he concluded his book Process and Reality with a chapter on God. It’s from this chapter that process theology emerged.

Creativity is the fundamental reality.   God is an expression of creativity, containing on the one hand all the possibilities that could come into existence, and on the other all the processes as they become, each moment, actual.

As possibility, (Whitehead calls this the primordial nature of God) God may have neither feeling nor consciousness, but is the “lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire.”

As actuality, (called by Whitehead the consequent nature) God is conscious and present, realizing the entire created universe, entity by entity, with all the beauty, ugliness, joy, suffering, boredom, indifference, love and hate within.

Whitehead says, “ The image under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived is that of a tender care that nothing be lost.” (Process and Reality, p.346)  *


* Nicholas Rescher, Process Metaphysics: An Introduction to Process Philosophy, State University of New York Press, 1996

* Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: an Essay in Cosmology, Corrected Edition, The Free Press, 1978.)


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5 thoughts on “Religion and Science: Integration

  1. Whitehead would appear to disagree with Darwin,who proposed that evolution involves only natural processes, without any additional “force or impetus towards internal growth and development”. Whitehead’s force is form of vitalism, which is rejected by biologists.

  2. Actually, the words “force or impetus towards internal growth and development in the notes on process thought were a paraphrase of Nicholas Rescher (p.28).
    Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World says this about vitalism: “I feel that this theory is an unsatisfactory compromised. The gap between living and dead matter is too vague and problematical to bear the weight of such an arbitrary assumption, which involves an essential dualism somewhere.

  3. I hit something on my keyboard that sent the preceding post off before I’d finished it. Sorry!
    The page number for the quotation is 79 in the Free Press paperback edition.
    I also meant to add that I understand the question of whether Whitehead really evaded some form of vitalism himself is still debated.

  4. I have not read Whitehead’s Process and Reality but rather some good secondary sources about his philosophy. I understand that in that work he undertakes a complete reinterpretation of the history of science. Part of the reinterpretation, as is well known is to see all of reality as process that is always moving, not the culmination of discrete particles that endure. As with all sciences by definition today, I would expect most biologists see themselves working with an empirically verifiable material world, at best leaving the concept “material” undefined. But Whitehead’s concept of process is not empirically verifiable, at least in the details he uses to talk about it. It seems to me, though not being a physicist, that maybe the frontiers of physics are pushing us to embrace something more like this view of process. But that pushes you to begin thinking philosophically or even theologically which certainly takes you beyond empirical science. But if we are to come to a more comprehensive and unified view of the world I would think what Whitehead proposes leads in the right direction. I asked a professor of philosophy once what the philosophy departments thought of Whitehead. The response was that mostly they were not clear of what he was talking about. That is a logical response to metaphysics in general which means when you go there you are venturing into areas of which you cannot claim “scientific” or analytic certainty, but a more imaginative, unitive and mystical view of the world. The same could be said for the work of Teilhard de Chardin.

  5. As science discloses more detail about nature and the universe, the boundary of what is unknown changes. In Darwin’s time, informed scientific opinion stalled at understanding species. So, that was left at restating the observable, that different species existed. Darwin pushed those boundaries out. Currently, as in the January issue of National Geographic, Dark Matter and Dark Energy are on the boundary, just beyond our reach. From this vantage, they are mysterious, impossible even to define adequately. This must have been how the origin of species seemed: obvious in some practical ways, yet mysterious to grapple with intellectually.

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