This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.
Astrotheology is that branch of theology that provides a critical analysis of the contemporary space sciences combined with an explication of classic doctrines such as creation and Christology for the purpose of constructing a comprehensive and meaningful understanding of our human situation within an astonishingly immense cosmos. Within the growing field of religion and science, astrotheology and its sister subject, astroethics, represent critical responses to the excitement permeating the space sciences, especially astrobiology. The excitement arises because of new searches for microbial life within the solar system and the discovery of exoplanets elsewhere in the Milky Way, some of which may be homes for extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations.
Contemporary issues in biology and Christian theology are still dominated by the legacy of 19th-century biologist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Debates in evolutionary biology in relation to religious belief have been reinforced by historical myths that stress conflict over integration. More conservative branches of Christianity, often allied to particular Protestant traditions, argue for a form of popular theology that attempts to compete with science, namely, creationism. More sophisticated versions of this position may appear under the guise of intelligent design, though creationism and intelligent design are not synonymous. The mirror image of this position has developed among biologists who identify themselves as new atheists, adding further fuel to the fire of an existing controversy. Methodologically speaking, the engagement of biology and theology will depend on different philosophical presuppositions according to basic models of (a) conflict, (b) independence, (c) dialogue, and (d) integration. The biological sciences also have broader relevance to allied subject domains including, for example: (a) ecological, agricultural, animal, and environmental sciences; (b) anthropological, social, and political sciences; (c) medical sciences, including genetic science and embryo development; and (d) new technologies that include bioengineering. Theological engagement with the biological component of each of these domains is particularly intense where there are controversial ethical issues at stake that seem to challenge specific Christian beliefs about human nature or divine purpose. A more positive approach to the biological sciences that draws on research in the constructive systematic theological task, while avoiding historically naïve forms of natural theology, is starting to emerge in the literature. Within Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christian traditions, there is a spectrum of possible positions, such that the field of science and theology as a whole tends to be ecumenical in orientation rather than divided along denominational boundaries. The Catholic and Orthodox churches, however, give greater precedence to official statements by their respective churches that then influence public reception of controversial issues in biology and theology in particular ways.
Contingency is a term that occurs in philosophical discourse as well as in theology in a number of contexts and with a number of meanings. In its modern sense the English term contingency refers to events, processes, or properties that may occur, but are not certain to occur; or that have, but might not have, occurred, because they depend on factors beyond our knowledge or which themselves are contingent. Generally speaking, it refers to events, objects, and properties that could be otherwise, that do not have to be as they are, and that do not have to be at all, and for whose existence we cannot give a sufficient cause. Thus contingency covers a whole range of meanings, including “not necessary,” “by chance,” “random,” and “unpredictable.”
In the discourse on science, the debate pivots on questions of determinism vs. indeterminism in physics (especially in quantum physics and in systems theory), on the contingent character of the cosmos and its fundamental physical laws, and on the question of whether the development of evolution and the actual forms of life that result from it are merely coincidental in biology. Some have referred to the first form of contingency as nomological and to the second as local contingency (Robert J. Russell, “Contingency in Physics and Cosmology: A Critique of the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Zygon 23.1 ). The alternative is between physical determinism (all events necessarily follow from prior initial conditions, so that contingency only refers to a lack of knowledge) and indeterminism (some events are not determined by prior conditions, hence contingency is an ontological fact). In religion and theology, contingency often marks the fundamental difference between the Creator and creation. It is used in ontological and cosmological proofs of the existence of God in the sense that all created beings cannot account for their own existence, but—in their contingency—point to a Creator, who is not contingent, but the necessary ground of his or her own being. However, it is disputed whether such a conclusion is valid or itself contingent. Another divide is between those who argue for total divine predestination (God determines everything that happens; again contingency is only a human category regarding insufficient knowledge and insight) and those who argue that God leaves some things to chance or to being determined autonomously by created entities. A consequence of the latter view seems to be that God cannot have sufficient fore-knowledge with regard to the process of creation so that God’s omniscience and omnipotence seem in danger. On the other hand, the option of total predestination faces the problem that in its view the Creator seems to be responsible for everything, including all evil.
Cybernetics is the study of systems of control and communication. While often used to refer to control systems in or by machines, such as computers, cybernetic theory can be applied to control and communication within a variety of areas, including human interaction and systems of production, distribution, or design, systems that may be comprised of humans, machines, or a combination of humans and machines. A cybernetic view of any system focuses on information and the flow of information, for that is what effects both control and communication. While cybernetics is a concept that can be used to describe any system through which information flows, today most human generated information flows through computers or computer controlled networks; thus in the popular mind, cybernetics is frequently used as a referent to anything pertaining to computer design, use, and human-computer interaction.
A cybernetic view of the human person finds each person’s identity in the information comprising our memories, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Human beings are considered in this view to be biological machines, each of whose unique identity is found in the patterns stored in the neuronal structures of the brain. In such an anthropology, there is no soul. Each of us is merely a vast and ever-changing collection of information. However, there is the possibility of a form of immortality effected by uploading the human brain to a computer.
Cybernetics is, historically, closely associated with the field of artificial intelligence. Though experiencing initial successes in fields such as game playing or mathematics, producing a full, human-like intelligence has so far been limited by the difficult problems of giving a robot a body similar to ours, in order to experience the world as we do, and the necessity of emotion for true cognition and autonomous decision making. We have come closer to realizing the dreams of cybernetics by using the computer to mediate human-to-human relationships, especially through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. This has implications for religion, in that the widespread dissemination of a variety of religious materials and discussions has led to increased contact with other religions, increased conversions, and an increase in fundamentalism.
Cybernetic theories can also be used to describe the origin of religion and the development of ethical systems. In general, a cybernetic view of the development of religion focuses on religion as an adaptive mechanism for the survival of groups as they evolve and change in an atmosphere of physical and social competition.
David J. Bartholomew
In many quarters God and chance are still seen as mutually exclusive alternatives. It is common to hear that ascribing anything to “chance” rules out God’s action.
Recent scientific developments have tended to reinforce that distinction. Quantum theory introduced an irreducible uncertainty at the atomic level by requiring that certain microscopic physical events were unpredictable in principle. This was followed by the biologists’ claim that mutations, on which evolution depends, were effectively random and hence that evolutionary development was undirected. The problem this posed to Christian apologists was put most forcibly by Jacques Monod when he asserted “Pure chance,… at the root of the stupendous edifice of evolution alone is the source of every innovation.”
Several attempts have been made to include chance within a theistic account. One, advocated by the intelligent design movement, is to contend that some biological structures are too complex to have originated in the way that evolutionary theory supposes and therefore that they must be attributed to God. Another is to suppose that God acts in an undetectable way at the quantum level without destroying the random appearance of what goes on there.
A third approach is to contend that chance is real and hence is a means by which God works. A key step in this argument is the recognition that chance and order are not mutually exclusive. Reality operates at a number of different levels of aggregation so that what is attributable to chance at one level emerges as near certainty at a higher level.
Further arguments, based on what is known as the anthropic principle, are also used to judge whether or not chance is sufficient to account for existence. These are critically evaluated.
The various positions that Muslim scholars have adopted vis-à-vis Darwin’s theory of evolution since its inception in 1859 are here reviewed with an eye on the theological arguments that are embraced, whether explicitly or implicitly. A large spectrum of views and arguments are thus found, ranging from total rejection to total acceptance, including “human exceptionalism” (evolution is applicable to all organisms and animals but not to humans).
The two main theological arguments that are thus extracted from Muslim scholars’ discussions of evolution are: 1) Is God excluded by the evolutionary paradigm or does the term “Creator” acquire a new definition? 2) Does Adam still exist in the human evolution scenario, and how to include his Qur’anic story in the scientific scenario?
Additional, but less crucial issues are sometimes raised in Islamic discussions of evolution: a) Does the extinction of innumerable species during the history of life on earth conflict with the traditional view of God’s creation? b) Is theodicy (“the problem of evil”) exacerbated or explained by evolution? c) Are “species” well-defined and important biological entities in the Islamic worldview? d) Can the randomness that seems inherent in the evolutionary process be reconciled with a divine creation plan?
These questions are here reviewed through the writings and arguments of Muslim scholars, and general conclusions are drawn about why rejectionists find it impossible to address those issues in a manner that is consistent with their religious principles and methods, and why more progressive, less literalistic scholars are able to fold those issues within a less rigid conception of God and the world.
Kathryn A. Edwards
In the 15th- and early-16th-century German-speaking lands, reports circulated of spirits shaking the walls of houses, comets presaging imminent doom, and dwarves warning miners to leave their tunnels. Widely accepted, such accounts point to a worldview in which the natural was believed to encompass a far broader swath of beings and activities than modern definitions of the term. Humans were enmeshed in a world where forces beyond human experience and, at times understanding, were active; they accepted their place in it and manipulated it, if necessary.
When studying such attitudes and the practices surrounding them, scholars of late medieval and early modern religious movements must move beyond truisms about “magical” or “enchanted” worlds to understand the impulses driving both reformers and those they wished to reform. Certainly 15th- and 16th-century Germans accepted that the divine permeated all creation, as creation was a product of God, and they saw divine manifestations throughout their world. Based on this truism, scholars have debated the extent to which pre-modern Europe was an enchanted world for approximately a century. Yet the powers imbuing that world had a more complex relationship to divinity than the somewhat romantic connotations of “enchanted” found in various modern works. Magicians, witches, devils, and other entities were all created beings who could access powers beyond the normal ken but were certainly not divine, despite any claims they might make to the contrary. Because such powers were imbued into nature itself, they were accessible to ordinary humans as well. And access them humans did! They were invoked to protect a village, cure ill children, and ward off injuries to livestock. They could also be used for evil, and archival and print documents attest to the practice of maleficent or demonic magic by learned clergy and illiterate peasants alike. When Protestant reformers demanded recognition of God’s omnipotence, they implicitly condemned this applied, occult magic and, in the process, practices that reflected a complete cosmology, that is, an understanding of how this world and the heavens operated. In this circumstance, it is not surprising that even the early reformers themselves could seem reluctant to abandon this immanent occultism.
Duane H. Larson
Were Luther to have lived another two decades, he might have been surprised even so early on to be informed that he positively influenced the rise of natural science. One can readily cite many Luther quotes that would cast him as anti-science; decontextualized quoting readily constructs such caricatures. But the truth of the matter is quite otherwise.
Consideration of Luther and Luther’s protégés and their philosophical-historical contexts reveals their positive regard for science. This is explicit in Luther’s immediate heirs like Melanchthon and Andreas Osiander. Though they differed in their opinions about the work of Copernicus, both respected him and the discipline he practiced. Luther’s influence carried beyond his immediate disciples through Johannes Kepler into the 17th century. The Irish-Anglican chemist and theologian Robert Boyle, for example, was significantly influenced by the Reformation principle of God’s sovereignty. In turn, Boyle strongly influenced Isaac Newton. But Lutheran support for the natural sciences had one major qualification. When “freed science” appeared to speculate more on God’s action than describe the visible character of natural phenomena, Luther saw overreaching ambition.
Such are the outlines of a historical approach of Luther’s influence on the beginning of the scientific revolution. Other Lutheran theological themes contributed to natural science’s robustness. In addition to a focus on God’s sovereignty—and so the doctrine of justification by grace through faith—these themes include (1) the nature of biblical authority, (2) the “realistic” epistemology of the theology of the cross, and (3) sacramentology.
One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.
In an evolutionary context neither religion nor religiosity can appear full-blown, and thus it is valuable to search for the kinds of structures, behaviors, and cognitive processes that might facilitate the appearance of such patterns in human beings. The quest for understanding the human propensity for religious behavior is aided by investigating the core role of the evolutionary processes related to the emergence of humanity. However, the majority of approaches in the field of the evolution of religious behavior, and religions themselves, rely heavily on overly reductionistic neo-Darwinian models. They seek to explain faith, religious institutions, and ritual practice primarily in terms of their relation to natural selection and their potential roles as adaptations. The niche construction approach to religious evolution provides an alternative to the primarily functionalist and reductive approach. This way of approaching the human niche, and human evolution, lays a groundwork for modeling the development of the structures (cognitive and behavioral) that can facilitate a more comprehensive, and less reductive, understanding of the human propensity for imagination, faith, and ritual. This approach suggests that a distinctively human imagination, and a uniquely human metaphysics, is a core part of being human and thus part of the explanation for human evolutionary success.