Final thoughts on the conference – The Revd. Jen Brown

Exploring the limits

The theme for this year’s Science & Religion Forum conference has been Are there limits to science? (see blog post from 1 September 2016). As the conference progressed into its second day, it seemed that we had moved from that question to asking, “Are there limits to God?” At first glance, this might seem a troubling, heretical or even blasphemous question. But it’s a question that has been asked in many different forms throughout Christian history (in questions about free will and the divine and human natures co-existing in Christ, for example). What seemed to be different about how the question was being asked here, however, was the implication that science or scientific knowledge might place limits on God.

This question about God having limits is, in one form at least, bound up with what has become known as the ‘God of the gaps’. This is a way of looking at reality that says that whatever can’t be explained by science must be God. Thus, God fills the gaps left by science. The problem with this is, of course, that as scientific knowledge progresses, these gaps get smaller and further apart. If one has only a God of the gaps, God begins to get squeezed out. I found myself thinking about this as I listened to a talk by Sarah Lane that focused on divine action in the world. It was, I must say, a very good an engaging talk. But it left me wondering if the problem of how God acts in the world (is God constrained by the laws of nature, or does God violate or suspend those laws in order to intervene in the world) was, in fact, a problem with our conceptualisation of God and God’s action. Much of the discussion, at least as I was hearing it, was being conducted as though God was simply one more part of the created order, existing within its boundaries and limits. The God of Christian, and other monotheistic, theology is the source of creation, by definition existing outside or beyond the universe that we can observe and measure. The more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me that the question of God’s interventions was related to our experience of time – God’s apparent foreknowledge, for example. But for God, who exists outside of time and beyond the bounds of physical laws, there is no foreknowledge, as such, because all of time is accessible to God simultaneously. This caused me to wonder whether the question of miracles that appear to violate the laws of nature, such as the resurrection, are of a similar order. Our ‘problem’ with these things is simply because we struggle to see and think beyond the natural laws that bind us, but which don’t extend to God. It should go without saying that I could have this completely wrong, and I’d love to hear from others who were at the conference and who might have other thoughts on the matter.

As the conference came to its close today, we returned to the potential limits of science, with a look at neuroscience and the internal limits imposed on science by the limitations of human knowledge, and the fact that all of our observations and measurements are, by their nature, subjective, because they are observations and measurements made by human beings, with all of our limitations, biases and faults. Does that render science useless? Far from it, but it does serve as a reminder that science does have its limits, simply because we as its practitioners and end users have limits. It should remind us also that our theology has limits. God may be without limit, but our understanding of him must, at least in this life, be mediated through and limited by our creaturely existence. Humility, then, is required of both science and religion as both seek after truth, knowledge and wisdom.

The Revd. Jen Brown

Originally posted on www.sciencemissioner.org.uk/blog