Theology & Science: Necessary Tensions

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Conflict demands resolution, tension demands a balancing act in the face of uncertainties.

Model of Tensions

In my quest to understand and articulate a dialogue position between science and religion, I have come to understand one thing clearly—tension is the de facto state of affairs between faith and reason, science and theology. Science and theology are akin to the Scylla and Charybdis of Homer’s Odyssey, two dangerous creatures waiting to devour any pilgrims who pass too close to either obstruction.

Traditionally the Scylla is viewed as a six-headed sea monster waiting to gobble individuals up and the Charybdis is a whirlpool sinking even the mightiest ships. They, together, were an inescapable set of hazards that every sailor had to face while entering the Italian mainland via Sicily. Stray too close to either, and you risked losing everything. However, the middle way was no less dangerous as a sailor was forced to tempt either the Scylla or Charybdis, the distance between them not being enough to keep one out of danger of the other. Thus, any sailor risked ruin in attempt to get home. It was, needless to say, a tense situation.

I think the twin hazards of the Scylla and the Charybdis capture nicely what a dialogue position between science and theology, Christ and culture, if fully developed looks like. In this post, I would like simply to explore a bit the theme of the Scylla and Charybdis as a model of tension between theology and science.

Tension is different from conflict in that tension is a stretching in opposite directions whereas conflict entails an incompatibility between two positions. Practically, tension is confusion or uncertainty as to which is the best way to proceed—but proceed one must. Conflict demands resolution, tension demands a balancing act in the face of uncertainties.

Intellect and Conscience

Think back to the Scylla and Charybdis. In Homer’sOdyssey, Odysseus was determined to get home to his family. He had no other option then to face the Scylla and the Charybdis, and therefore no genuine conflict. However, his journey home included a visceral tension when navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis. He could not avoid one monster without tempting the other and vice-versa. It is similar to stretching a rubber band between two fingers, any slack is quickly snapped up by the other finger. Likewise, any position taken on certain scientific findings and religious statements, whether official doctrine of the church or unofficial statements made in the pulpit or classroom, have the potential to pull on a person’s intellect and conscience in a way similar to the Scylla and the Charybdis pull at Odysseus’ ship.

In the story of science and theology, the Scylla is represented by theology, a many-headed creature waiting to devour a person who strays too far from the straight and narrow. I use the term ‘devour’ negatively in a way related to my last post on “The Restoration of Hell.” The Charybdis is the whirlpool, a natural wonder to experience from a distance. Stray too close, however, and a traveler will find themselves silently pulled into a naturalistic abyss.

We must recognize that danger exists from both theology and science.

The tension is perhaps best understood when theology and science are thought about in the way their knowledge is presented to the laity. This is the true battlefield of science and theology; as most of us are not professional scientists or theologians. We are more consumers than creators of theology and science. Thought of in this fashion, the tension is more adequately understood as one of public philosophy. The public nature of the tension, I contend, is why the tension is often deeply existential in nature.

Think of it this way, the church is a respite from a tiring life; a place where Christ and community find me, know me, forgive me. Theology presents a place providing rest beyond what is humanly possible. But science is a place I seek help when my eating, drinking, and living catches up with me, a place where data and communities ease my pain, help kick habits, and put brokenness back into natural order. Science provides a space representing what is humanly possible. And it is why my consciousness is torn when these two authorities quarrel. The Scylla pulls me, the Charybdis pulls me, and I sense the mutual destruction they offer at the extremes.

And here is the gist of my meandering thoughts. We must recognize that danger exists from both theology and science. We live behind a veil of ignorance, a world broken by sin, and given over to the devil. Christ has freed us in His resurrection, but, much like Odysseus, the journey home is a perilous one. Every stroke of the oar brings new variations upon the devouring nature of the Scylla and Charybdis. Yet, just as Odysseus, we have no choice but to push forward, navigating the waters with a sense of virtue that does not blindly run our ship into either gaping jowl.

This is why dialogue is so difficult; it begins with recognizing the tempting destruction at either extreme. The Scylla of theology and the Charybdis of science may not physically kill us, but an intellectual death, when dealing with Christ and culture, is also worth avoiding. Navigating the tension is difficult and will cause its own brand of suffering. But again, we rest assured that Christ has died for even my intellect when, not if, I fail in managing the necessary tension.