Stoeger: ‘Science, philosophy and theology take us beyond what we already know’

The Rev. Bill Stoeger, S.J., Ph.D., speaks Monday, Feb. 11, at an APU public lecture focusing on the fit between God’s creation and the Big Bang theory of the universe.

An astrophysicist on staff with the Vatican Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., Stoeger says that science, philosophy and theology have more in common than many people may think.

APU Blog: You credit one of your high school teachers for taking your interest science and theology seriously. How did your career take shape?

The Rev. Bill Stoeger: As a boy, I was fascinated by nature and science. Growing up in a devout Roman Catholic family, I also was very curious about God, Christ and Creation. When one of our freshman-year high school teachers, a Franciscan priest, spent about a month focusing on how science and faith fit together, I went on to do a project on the compatibility of science and theology.

These things, along with discussions I’d had with relatives who were believing Catholics also involved in science and engineering, nourished my lifelong interest in how the natural sciences, philosophy and theology connect. When I joined the Jesuit order, I studied physics, philosophy and theology in a more serious way. As a graduate student later, my interests narrowed to gravitational theory, astrophysics, and cosmology, which is the science of the origin and development of the universe.

APU: This is your first trip to Alaska. Was it timed to take advantage of our long hours of winter darkness, the better to view the stars?

Stoeger: I’m certainly looking forward to my trip. I didn’t time it to take advantage of Alaska darkness – I don’t do much observational astronomy – but I enjoy contemplating the night sky. It’s amazingly beautiful.

I study the detailed results that astronomers obtain from stargazing research to develop understanding and model what’s going on in star systems or in the universe as a whole. My work is more theoretical and mathematical.

APU: When you think about the intersection of science, philosophy and theology, how do you get past polarized public discourse that tries to pit these disciplines against each other?

Stoeger: In their most authentic forms, science, philosophy and theology are directed toward knowing and understanding more about the world and universe around us. Each field is concerned with our origins, our destiny, and the meaning of it all.

All three areas search for truth. They ask questions that take us beyond what we already know to new knowledge and understanding. All three have their own capabilities and limitations. Each focuses on different aspects of reality.

APU: Can you say more about strengths and weaknesses of each?

Stoeger: Science is very good at determining the detailed structure of all the things that make up reality – stars, galaxies, rocks, organisms, animals, ourselves, all of matter – and the interrelationships among these and how they got that way.

But science can’t explore fundamental questions. Where did everything come from? Why is nature ordered this way rather than some other way? Science can’t tell us the values and meanings we should live by, how we know and choose, and who we are as human beings.

That’s the realm of philosophy, which must use some of the conclusions of the sciences. But the questions, methods and evidence used by philosophy are different.

In some ways, philosophy examines aspects of reality that science presupposes – the basic principles of causality, for example.

Theology must also use and pay attention to what natural sciences and philosophy are coming up with. But theology is directed toward understanding what we believe about God and why, and how God relates to us. Theology presupposes faith – in individuals and in communities of faith – and that, in turn, presupposes authentic divine revelation, the basis of religious faith.

APU: What about when science, philosophy and theology seem to disagree?

Stoeger: The knowledge and understanding that science, philosophy or theology come up with cannot contradict one another. If they do, then it means that one, or two, or all three are in error, have overstepped their limitations, or simply not articulated their knowledge and understanding in an adequate way.

So all three must be in communication – in dialog – with one another and pay attention to what each is finding and discussing.

APU: It seems as if people claim one camp or the other – not all three at once….

Stoeger: Polarization in public discourse about “creation science” and evolution is the result of people on both sides, particularly the “creationism” side, failing to respect the limits of their respective disciplines – theology and biblical studies on one side and evolutionary science on the other.

Extreme views in each camp fail to respect the legitimate competencies of the other side. The most serious deficiency is on the side of the fundamentalist Biblical specialists and theologians who treat Old Testament creation narratives as historically and scientifically reliable documents, whose content is to be understood in an historical and scientific literal way.

These documents are theologically authoritative, not historical and scientifically authoritative. These texts are divinely inspired. They contain central theological truths but in literary forms that cannot and should not be taken literally. Instead, they require interpretation in light of our knowledge of Middle Eastern history, culture and literary forms.

APU: And the other side?

Stoeger: A number of evolutionary biologists in their popular accounts will mistakenly draw philosophical or theological conclusions that go significantly beyond what is supported in science. However they legitimately and strongly counter “creation scientists” for their unreasonable dismissal of evolution – or, in milder cases, for their misunderstanding of evolutionary processes and history.

APU: Can the overreaching that you’ve described be corrected?

Stoeger: We do have to learn to talk about these issues in more civil ways for sure. How to do this in a given case is hard to determine, particularly when one side or the other dismisses large areas of science and contemporary Biblical scholarship, or when the legitimacy of philosophy and theology are rejected.

It’s hard to learn to talk in more civil ways if sides are not willing to listen, to reason, and to try to understand the source of their deep disagreements.

APU: So science and theology could complement each other.

Stoeger: Yes, and help each other in their quests for truth.

What theology really says about human origins is that human beings are created by God, in God’s image and likeness. What that means is that ultimately God is the one who holds human beings, and everything else that is or will be, in existence and order, through God’s creative relationship with us and with it.
Furthermore, God intends human beings to exist as special, with the capacity to know, understand, live and act in a personal relationship with God and others in love.

Many of the natural sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, physical anthropology – don’t take an interest in what theology has to say in this regard. And they shouldn’t! That’s because questions and details they’re dealing with do not directly involve God.

God is a very important answer to certain key philosophical and theological questions, depending on what the word “God” means in those cases. But not for a given science. This is one of the limitations of the sciences.

APU: Some scientists are interested in what theology has to say about human origins.

Stoeger: That’s because their scientific knowledge is only one component of who they are as humans beings and doesn’t answer all their questions.

On the other side, theology does need to heed what science says, because theology is not equipped to determine the actual detailed history, stages and processes that gave rise to human beings. Creation narratives of the Old Testament are not and never were meant to be scientific or historical. That is what biology, paleontology and anthropology do.

We need to remember that God is the author of nature itself and empowers the natural processes and laws of nature to be and function as they are. By heeding what natural sciences legitimately determine, theology can narrow their focus to understanding how God is creatively active in nature, enabling human beings to emerge and thrive, and to purge theology from fundamentalism and Biblical literalism.

APU: As a Catholic priest and astrophysicist, how does your thinking play out when people reject scientific knowledge about evolution?

Stoeger: I basically point out that they are privileging one clearly unfounded interpretation of Biblical texts over others which are more strongly supported by scholarship and more in consonant with both the theological focus of the Bible and with scientific findings.

St. Augustine, St. Basil the Great and other early theologians and Fathers of the Church already recognized that Old Testament creation texts were to be interpreted allegorically. Theological contents, not historical and scientific content, were stressed.