You are here
Man, the Priest of Creation
The ultimate end of Christian theology is undoubtedly the knowledge and enjoyment of God for his own sake, but this knowledge and enjoyment arise within the relation of God the Creator to the universe he has made and within which he has set man, who is known within traditional theology as “the crown of creation.” It is in and through the universe of space and time that God has revealed himself to us in modes of rationality that he has conferred upon the creation and upon us in the creation, and it is in and through the same universe of space and time that theology makes its disciplined response to God’s self-revelation. The understanding of this universe, which is the prime aim of our natural scientific inquiries, can only be of deep interest to theology. This is God’s universe, which he made accessible to our inquiries, and it is precisely in this universe that we worship and enjoy him and seek to fulfill the divinely given purpose for intelligent human beings in its creation. That is why I make no apology as a theologian for my own engagement over the years in trying to think out the interrelations of theological and natural science, for, as I understand it, this is part of my calling as man of faith and man of science.
At no time, perhaps, has this theological interest in natural science been so intense as it is now, in view of the startling advances recently made in a unitary and comprehensive understanding of the whole space-time manifold. Before the astonishing nature of the universe as it is revealed in scientific inquiry, I am overwhelmed with awe and wonder of a profoundly religious kind, in which my prime thought is of praise and glory to God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.
When I look at the sky, which you have made,
at the moon and the stars, which you
set in their places–
what is man, that you think of him;
mere man, that you care for him?
How often those words from the ancient psalm of Israel have echoed in our thoughts as the incomprehensible immensity of the universe began to be disclosed to the inquiries of our astronomers! Vast as our solar system is, the sun is only one star among the one hundred-thousand million stars that make up our own galaxy, which we call the Milky Way. The Milky Way is so immense that light traveling at the rate of approximately 186,000 miles a second would take 100,000 years to pass from one end of it to the other. But the Milky Way is only one galaxy among at least 100,000,000 similar systems of stars far beyond it. And what is also staggering is that this universe, comprising all these galaxies, is expanding at the rate of more than 160,000 miles a second. What is man, mere man, in the face of this incomprehensible immensity, that God should think of him and care for him?
And now, as if in answer to that question, our astronomers have come up with something that to me is even more breath-taking in its implications: the narrow margin of possibility that all this allows for the rise of intelligent life anywhere in the universe. I refer here to the F. W. Angel Memorial Lecture delivered by Sir Bernard Lovell in Newfoundland in October 1977 (now incorporated in his book In the Center of Immensities), in which he asked: Why is the universe expanding so near the critical rate to prevent its collapse? If the universe had begun to expand in the first few minutes after the explosion of its original incredibly dense state by a rate minutely slower than it did, it would have collapsed back again relatively quickly. And if the expansion of the universe had been different only by a tiny fraction one way or the other from its actual rate, human existence would evidently have been impossible. "But our measurements," Sir Bernard declared, "narrowly define one such universe-which had to be that particular universe if it was ever to be known and comprehended by an intelligent being" (p. I 1 6).
All this seems to say two things. First, this vast universe is the kind of universe it is because it is necessary for the existence of man: somehow man and the universe are profoundly bracketed together. Many years ago when Einstein first formulated the theory of general relativity, Hermann Weyl pointed out that since all things, bodies in motion and space and time, are ultimately defined by reference to light, light occupies a unique metaphysical place in the universe. Now, however, even from the way that astrophysical science is developing, it appears that man occupies a unique metaphysical place in the universe. It is in this direction that science was pointed by Professor John Archibald Wheeler, then of Princeton, in a lecture given in 1973 in commemoration of the 5ooth anniversary of the birth of Copernicus, which he entitled "The Universe as Home for Man." And it is much the same theme that Sir John Eccles has taken up recently in his Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh.
Second, the fact that the universe has expanded in such a way that the emergence of conscious mind in it is an essential property of the universe, must surely mean that we cannot give an adequate account of the universe in its astonishing structure and harmony without taking conscious mind into account, that is, without including conscious mind as an essential factor in our scientific equations.
That is a point that Shrodinger made as long ago as 1958 in his Cambridge lectures published under the title Mind and Matter, and that Sir John Eccles took up in his work Facing Reality in 1970. If this is the case, as I believe it is, then natural science is on the verge of opening itself out toward higher levels of reality in a movement of wonder and awe in which our increasing awareness of the limitations of science the theme of Sir Bernard Lovell's presidential lecture to the British Association for the Advance of Science in 1974 is matched by our awareness that as we probe into the intrinsic order of the universe, we are in touch with a depth of intelligibility that reaches indefinitely beyond what our finite minds can comprehend. I cannot but recall here those sentences of Einstein's in which he spoke of "that humble attitude of mind towards the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths is inaccessible to man" (Out of My Later Years, p. 33), and of "the rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection" (The World as I See It, p. 18).
To all this, theological science presents a complementary account, for this universe of space and time explored by natural science - far from being alien - is the universe in which God has planted us. He created the universe and endowed man with gifts of mind and understanding to investigate and interpret it. Just as he made life to reproduce itself, so he has made the universe - with man as an essential constituent of it - in such a way that it can bring forth and articulate knowledge of itself. Our scientific knowledge of the universe as it unfolds its secrets to our human inquiries is itself part of the expanding universe. Regarded in this light the pursuit of natural science is one of the ways in which man, the child of God, fulfills his distinctive function in the creation. That is how, for example, Francis Bacon at the outset of our modern scientific era understood the work of human science as a form of man's obedience to God. Science properly pursued in this way is a religious duty. Man as scientist can be spoken of as the priest of creation, whose office it is to interpret the books of nature written by the finger of God, to unravel the universe in its marvelous patterns and symmetries, and to bring it all into orderly articulation in such a way that it fulfills its proper end as the vast theater of glory in which the Creator is worshipped and hymned and praised by his creatures. Without man, nature is dumb, but it is man's part to give it word: to be its mouth through which the whole universe gives voice to the glory and majesty of the living God.
This is the universe of space and time through which God has also revealed himself personally to man in historical dialogue with the human race, which has involved the establishment of communities of reciprocity in which his Word is intelligibly mediated to us and knowledge of God becomes communicable through Holy Scriptures. But since all this takes place within the created universe of space and time, and since space and time are the bearers of all rational order within the universe, it is in and through this universe as its orderly connections are unfolded under man's scientific investigations that we are surely to develop and express our knowledge of God mediated through his Word. The natural scientist and the theologian are both at work within the same space-time structures of the universe and under the limits of their boundary conditions. The natural scientist inquires into the processes and patterns of nature, and man himself is a part of nature; and the theologian inquires of God the Creator of nature and the source of its created rationalities, to which man also belongs. Thus theological science and natural science have their own proper and distinctive objectives to pursue, but their work inevitably overlaps, for they both respect and operate through the same rational structures of space and time, while each develops special modes of investigation, rationality, and verification in accordance with the nature and the direction of its distinctive field. But since each of them is the kind of thing it is as a human inquiry because of the profound correlation between human knowing and the space-time structures of the creation, each is in its depth akin to the other. Regarded in this way, natural science and theological science are not opponents but partners before God, in a service of God in which each may learn from the other how better to pursue its own distinctive function, how better to be natural science or how better to be theological science.
This is a relationship that is not one-sided but mutual, for natural science has actually learned far more from theological science than is generally realized. In a lecture I gave in July of 1978 in New York to the International Institute of Theoretic Sciences (to which I shall refer extensively, in the third chapter), I showed how three of the most basic ideas of modern natural science-which have come very much to the front since general relativity-go back to definite roots, and indeed derive from Christian sources, in Alexandria, as Greek theologians from the fourth to the sixth century thought out the relation between the Incarnation and the Creation and reconstructed the foundations of ancient science and culture. But let me give you now a different example, taken from J ames Clerk Maxwell, whose death a hundred years ago we commemorated in 1979. The distinctive idea he used in developing his celebrated field theory which has had such a powerful impact on modern science, not least upon the thought of Einstein - Clerk Maxwell gained as a student in Edinburgh University, not so much from his classes in physics as from Sir William Hamilton's lectures in metaphysics, an idea that had a theological as well as a philosophical root.
It is cross-fertilization of this kind that is to be found behind some of the most outstanding advances in human knowledge. But the great day for creative integration between apparently separate or opposing disciplines, such as natural science and theological science, lies, not behind us, but ahead of us. This kind of dialogue and exchange in thought is now possible in a new and exciting way because of far-reaching change that has been going on within the foundations of knowledge, in which both science and theology have been sharing in different ways. Since it is this deepening coordination in understanding between natural science and theological science that I have tried to serve, it may be of interest if I indicate briefly how I regard this change in scientific activity that makes such coordination possible.
The fundamental principle that I have been concerned with is a very simple one, but its implications are deep and far-reaching when worked out consistently over the whole range of human knowledge. We know things in accordance with their natures, or what they are in themselves; and so we let the nature of what we know determine for us the content and form of our knowledge. This is what happens in our ordinary, everyday experience and knowledge, when, for example, we treat trees in accordance with their nature as trees and not as rocks, or treat cows in accordance with their nature as cows and not as horses, or treat human beings in accordance with their nature as persons and not as things. Science, in every field of our human experience, is only the rigorous extension of that basic way of thinking and behaving. This is a way of understanding scientific activity that is much more appropriate to the complexity and richness of nature as it becomes disclosed to us through the great advances of the special sciences than is that way to which we became accustomed within the compass of a mechanistic universe and its rigid instrumentalism. This is particularly evident in the field of biology, where advance has been obstructed through reduction of organismic relations into mechanistic concepts. Nature must be respected and courted, not imposed upon. We must let it develop and flower, as it were, under our investigations. That is surely required if we are really to know anything in accordance with what it is in itself, and not simply along the lines of its artificial reaction to our tormenting distortion of it. Science is not, therefore, something to be set against our ordinary and natural experience in the world, but, on the contrary, is a development and a refinement of it, with a deeper penetration into the natural coherences and patterns already embedded in the real world and already governing our normal behavior day by day.
All this applies as much in our relations with God as in our relations with nature or with one another. There is no secret way of knowing either in science or in theology, but there is only one basic way of knowing, which naturally develops different modes of rationality in natural science and in theological science because the nature of what we seek to know in each is different-and that is a difference we are rationally and scientifically obliged to respect. Thus it would be unscientific to transfer from one field to another the distinctive mode of rationality that develops within it. Just as it would be irrational to try to know a person by subjecting his physical existence to chemical analysts or to treat a chemical substance as though it were a human being and to try to talk to it and listen to it so it would be irrational to look for God through a telescope or to treat him like a natural process - as irrational as it would be to use God as a stopgap in the formation of some hypothesis to explain a set of physical connections in nature. In each field of inquiry, then, we must be faithful to the reality we seek to know and must act and think always in a relation of relentless fidelity to that reality. This is why we cannot oppose natural science and theological science to each other as though they could or had to contradict one another, but must, rather, regard them as applying the one basic way of knowing faithfully to their respective fields and must seek to coordinate the knowledge they yield through the appropriate modes of inquiry and thought they develop.
In recent years the increasing fidelity of science to the nature of things has resulted in a number of changes that are proving to be highly significant for the unification of knowledge in overcoming the split between the natural and the human sciences and between both of these and theological science. Let me refer to four of these changes. I. Science has been shedding its abstractive character, in which, through a predominantly observationalist approach, it tended to tear the surface patterns of things away from their objective ground in reality, as though we could have no knowledge of things in themselves or in their internal relations, but only in their appearances to us. That abstractive method involved the damaging bifurcation in nature with which the deep splits in our modern culture are associated. But now all that is being cut back, as-in sheer faithfulness to things as they actually are in themselves-science is concerned to understand. The surface patterns of things in the light of the natural coherences in which they are actually embedded, and it therefore operates with the indissoluble unity of form and being, or of theoretical and empirical elements in human knowledge. Here we have a reconciling force in the depths of scientific knowledge that cannot help but heal the breaches that have opened in our culture. Not only can theological science share in this reconciliation, it can make a creative contribution to it.
The great era of merely analytical science is now coming to an end, for the new science (if I can call it that) starting from a unitary approach, operates with an integration of form that transcends the limits of analytical methods and their disintegrating effects. Atomistic thinking is replaced by relational thinking-nowhere is that more true than in the development of high-energy physics and particle theory, in which many of the so-called particles are recognized, not as discrete particles, but as energy knots in the fields of force between the stronger particles. Here we have a mode of onto-relational thinking with which Christian theology has long been familiar-out of which, for example, there came the concept of the person. But let us look at the change in another way. Merely analytical science has had great difficulty in coping with the problem of how to think together being and event or the geometrical and the dynamic aspects of nature, such as the particle and the field in light theory, or position and momentum in quantum theory.
Although Einstein failed to develop a unified field theory that would transcend the divergent corpuscular and undulatory theories of light, he insisted that any real description of nature in its internal relations must involve the unity of the particle and the field, as indeed Faraday had already indicated in the last century. As I understand it, this is the stage that high-energy physics has now reached. But in Christian theology this stage had already been reached by Karl Barth forty years ago, when with herculean effort he brought together the ancient emphasis upon the being of God in his acts and the modern emphasis upon the acts of God in his being, and thus integrated in a remarkable way the whole history of Christian thought. It is integrative thinking of this kind, whether in natural or in theological science, that is bound to have the greatest effect in the future upon all our human knowledge.
One of the most startling features in recent science is the success with which scientists like Katsir and Prigogine have wrestled with the problem of how to relate the so called random elements in nature to the laws of thermodynamics, which-as classically formulated-hold only within closed systems. Katsir tragically lost his life in the Lod airport massacre a few years ago, but Prigogine has recently been given the Nobel Prize for work in which he has applied the laws of thermodynamics to open, or non-equilibrium, systems. It is difficult to grasp all that this means, but what does seem clear to me is that the old way of thinking in terms of the couplets chance and necessity, uncertainty and determinism, must now be replaced by a new way of thinking in terms of spontaneity and open-structured order-for what is revealed to us is an astonishing spontaneity in nature that yields a dynamic kind of order with an indefinite range of intelligibility that cries out for completion beyond the universe known to our natural scientific inquiries. Theologically speaking, what we are concerned with here is an understanding of the spontaneity and freedom of the created universe as grounded in the unlimited spontaneity and freedom of God the Creator. Here natural science and theological science bear closely upon one another at their boundary conditions, and what is needed is a more adequate doctrine of creation, in which knowledge from both sides of those boundary conditions can be coordinated.
Science has been moving away from a flat understanding of nature all on one level to one that is characterized by a hierarchy of levels, or dimensions. Science of this kind is concerned to discover the relations between things and events at different levels of complexity. It has the double task of penetrating into a new kind of connection and of lifting up the mind to a new level where we can apprehend and bring that new kind of connection to appropriate formulation. The universe is not flat, but is a stratified structure, so that our science takes the form of an ascending hierarchy of relations of thought that are open upward in a deeper and deeper dimension of depth but that cannot be flattened downward by being reduced to connections all on the same level. The old-fashioned science that tried to reduce everything to hard, causal connections in a rigidly mechanistic universe damaged the advance of knowledge in all the higher levels with which we are concerned in our culture. But advance of this kind is now going on, for the new science gives ample room for the human sciences and the sciences of the spirit, and for all sciences concerned with living connections, within the framework of an open-structured dynamic universe in which the human person is not suffocated, but can breathe freely transcendent air, and yet be profoundly concerned with scientific understanding of the whole complex of connections that make up our universe.
No one has pioneered this way of heuristic thinking in science more than Michael Polanyi, whose thought reveals an unrivaled subtlety and delicacy in showing how the different levels of human understanding are coordinated in such a semantic focus that meaning is brought back to our world with new force and direction. Here, instead of fragmenting in disintegrating specializations, the whole enterprise of science recovers in depth and breadth an uplifting unitary outlook that begins to match the character of the universe itself - and indeed the relation of the universe to God its transcendent Creator and Sustainer.
It is more and more clear to me that, under the providence of God, owing to these changes in the very foundations of knowledge in which natural and theological science alike have been sharing, the damaging cultural splits between the sciences and the humanities and between both of these and theology, are in process of being overcome, that the destructive and divisive forces too long rampant in world-wide human life and thought are being undermined, and that a massive new synthesis will emerge in which man, humbled and awed by the mysterious intelligibility of the universe that reaches far beyond his powers, will learn to fulfill his destined role as the servant of divine love and the priest of creation.
T. F. Torrance, The Ground of Theology, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), pp. 1-14.