International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

God and Contemporary Science (Edinburgh Studies in Constructive Theology)

by Philip Clayton

Introductory Essay by Robert J. Russell

In God and Contemporary Science, theologian and philosopher Philip Clayton tackles two of the most urgent questions that shape the constructive dialogue between theology, philosophy and the natural sciences: how to conceive of God’s relation to, and God’s agency in, the world as understood by science. Clayton begins with a careful assessment of Biblical resources for addressing these questions. In Chapters 2 and 3, he discusses how the doctrine of creation ex nihilo underlies both the Israelite and the New Testament belief in the universality of God’s salvation and, for Christians, the New Testament points to the particularity of God’s action in Jesus. Clayton then launches an impressive argument for panentheism as the preferable way to conceive of the relation between God and the world: “We are not God because we are different in our fundamental nature from God… The world is contained within God; yet the world is not identical to God” (p. 90).

Clayton then moves on to consideration of Big Bang cosmology and theology, naturalism, and causality. After discussing various ways to understand the relationship between creation and cosmology, he offers eight theses which suggest how scientific discoveries “plead for meta-physical, and ultimately theological, treatment and interpretation.” (p. 161). Then, after a careful response to the challenge of naturalism, Clayton turns to the theme of divine causality in nature in light of the natural sciences. “(T)he question is not how to prove that God is active in the world at particular moments, but rather how to think this possibility in a manner that does not conflict with what we now know of the world (through science)” (p. 193). This leads Clayton to discuss areas in science which might provide evidence for a radical openness (i.e., “ontological indeterminacy”) in nature which would allow for divine causality in specific events. Two such areas (and their supporters) assume a “bottom-up” approach to divine action: chaos theory (John Polkinghorne) and quantum mechanics (Thomas Tracy, Nancey Murphy, and Robert Russell). Arthur Peacocke, instead, urges a “top-down” approach in which God acts on the “world as a whole.” Clayton carefully analyzes each of these approaches and concludes that Peacocke’s work comes closest to a panentheistic theory of divine action. He then combines top-down and bottom-up approaches to divine action using such philosophical concepts as emergence and supervenience. Clayton makes a powerful argument for “a theory of God as divine agent which is both a product of theological reflection and consistent with (and perhaps even suggested by) what science has come to know about the natural world and the place of human agents within it. According to the panentheism I have defended, God can act on any part of the world in a way similar to our action on our bodies. At the same time, God also transcends the world and will exist long after the physical universe has ceased...” (p. 264)

Readers will benefit from using this excellent book as an entry-point to Clayton’s many other contributions to theology and science. In addition, they might explore the writings of Arthur Peacocke who has played a key role in Clayton’s work, and they might compare Clayton’s contributions with those, for example, of Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, and Nancey Murphy.