Tom Sutcliffe—The old doctrines are not enough

Posted by Kendall Harmon

On the final day of the recent Church of England General Synod meeting there was a rather worthy debate about how the claims of science are affecting belief in God. At no point did any of the speakers remark on the surely important fact that the public square these days is crowded with religions. Clearly, religious belief is not incompatible with science. However, people in a multicultural society, who respect the beliefs of all, must inevitably observe that all religions are similarly non-scientific in the way they furnish different, often incompatible explanations about the meaning of life, whereas science is systemically consistent. And this must account for the different ways that people treat scientific truths and what are claimed as religious truths.

Science is a method applied to whatever can be tested and observed. It makes no claims save in those terms. Human knowledge, and the science that extends it, is finite. But the boundaries of what is known continue to expand. As the Bible says – "No man has seen God" in a scientific sense. So God seems, in a way, to be diminishing in significance, becoming more remote and much less persuasive. Unavoidably, science now suggests to some – as it always has – that God is not an objective necessity. Wisdom is no church monopoly. Lucretius in De Rerum Natura doubted whether anything humans could do would have any effect on the gods, rather in the same way that one may be at a loss when one seeks a present for somebody much richer who has everything already. A being who cannot be seen or known cannot be tested scientifically.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalAnglican ProvincesChurch of England (CoE)* Culture-WatchReligion & CultureScience & Technology

11 Comments
Posted February 28, 2010 at 4:16 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Henry Greville wrote:

Christian religious revelation must be preached as infinitely more comprehensive than science, and the only place where one may begin to uncover for the answers to the great questions “Who am I?”, “What is the purpose of my being alive?”, and “What happens when I die?” Preaching anything less existentially important is a waste of the preacher’s and congregation’s time.

February 28, 7:56 pm | [comment link]
2. Fr. Dale wrote:

I see that faith stories need to be accepted – just as attending Hamlet or The Ring involves suspending disbelief, and going along with the story.

I think at this point “suspending disbelief” and “unbelief” have merged. Sutcliffe believes that religion is inferior to science but it is unclear to me whether he believes the two are compatible or science is replacing religion as truth. If it is the latter, then is he simply attending church as if it were a theatrical performance?

February 28, 9:55 pm | [comment link]
3. rugbyplayingpriest wrote:

This to me is ample proof of why Synod is an abberation to God

March 1, 5:40 am | [comment link]
4. Br. Michael wrote:

I continue to be profoundly attracted to the teaching and person of Jesus, and try to follow him as a “living lord” in my own way. He constantly provokes and challenges, as he did in his lifetime. He is, in that sense, risen again – and even sometimes, through his spirit, clearly leading our church which is his resurrection body.

He is no Christian in any creedal sense.  It is clear that his religion is science, yet he seems to acknowledge that science cannot answer those questions that can’t be measured.  These are the classic worldview questions:

1 What is the prime reality—the really real?
2 What is the nature of external reality, that is the world around us?
3 What is a human being?
4 What happens to a person at death?
5 Why is it possible to know anything at all?
6 How do we know what is right and wrong?
7 What is the meaning of human history?

I suspect that his true worldview is some form of natural materialism with perhaps an overlay of some Christian ethics.

March 1, 8:22 am | [comment link]
5. Fr. Dale wrote:

His comments remain somewhat confusing to me but based on the comments of others, it is obvious that he is seeking to replace the truth of tradition with the truth of science. His belief system is a confusing attempt to blend science and religion. Ironically, in the quote used by Br. Michael, there is a subjectivism that is neither religion or science.

March 1, 9:56 am | [comment link]
6. phil swain wrote:

I don’t think that it’s any more difficult for a modern scientist to believe in God then it was for an ancient “scientist”.  This piece is not about religion and science, but about multiculturalism.

March 1, 11:02 am | [comment link]
7. Fr. Dale wrote:

#6. phil swain,

This piece is not about religion and science, but about multiculturalism.

He uses the word science at least eleven times, religion at least seven time and multiculturalism once. You may see it that way and his confused piece may lead one to conclude this but the weight of the words suggest otherwise.

March 1, 12:37 pm | [comment link]
8. Jon wrote:

His comments confuse you, Dale, because it is a TERRIBLY written piece.  Any good high school English teacher would send him back home and ask him to write it again.  (Anybody remember that from A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT—the Presbyterian father teaching his son how to write?)

Reading a clear skeptical attack on the creedal faith (e.g. the essay “Why I am Not a Christian” by the great 20th century philosopher and prose stylist Bertrand Russell) can be a bracing and profitable experience.  This was just crap.

March 1, 12:39 pm | [comment link]
9. art wrote:

Actually; to my mind, Tom Sutcliffe is onto something very important when he wants to talk about science and Christianity.  Alas; the way he puts the question however places him in a (false) corner.  For there is more to science than he allows. 

May I suggest that if he - and any other blogger - is serious about how to relate contemporary scientific methods (and the powerful human knowledge these bring) with the Christian Faith, then they read Alister McGrath’s The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology (2004).  Enjoy!

March 1, 6:34 pm | [comment link]
10. Ross wrote:

To some extent, he makes a good point.  To a neutral observer, examining the multiplicity of religions in the world, it would seem inescapable that:

1) These are all instances of the same general category of thing, and
2) Since they make incompatible claims, at most one of them can be true

To this neutral observer, weighing the hypotheses “All are equally false” versus “One is true, all the others are false,” the first hypothesis may well seem the most likely.  C. S. Lewis made a similar remark once, in that when he was a child his teachers asserted that every other religion in the world was transparently superstitious nonsense, but by happy coincidence their own religion—which he could easily see was the same sort of thing as all the others—was clearly and self-evidently true.  It seemed unlikely, especially after reflecting that children in all those other countries were doubtless being told exactly the same thing about their religions.

But on the other hand, he (Sutcliffe) assumes that all religions make truth claims only about scientifically-untestable spiritual truths.  For Christianity (at least) this is not true: Christianity asserts as true that a particular person was executed in a particular way, was laid in a tomb, and was miraculously raised from the dead.  If it were possible to send an observer with a video camera back in time, Christianity asserts that these events could be recorded.  Lacking that time machine, these events should at least be susceptible to the usual methods of historical inquiry.

Christianity makes many truth claims that are “religious” in the sense that Sutcliffe describes, but it also makes bald claims about historical events.  Christianity could, in this sense, be “disproved”—if someone were able to show, by historical methods, that Jesus never existed, or was never crucified, or did not rise from the dead.  (ABC: “[I]f the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine I could not be a Christian in the way that I now am.”)  Since the hallmark of any scientific hypothesis is that is can in principle be disproved, Christianity is not entirely on the “religious” side of the scientific/religious divide that Sutcliffe imagines.

March 1, 8:00 pm | [comment link]
11. art wrote:

This was a delightful riposte to TS, Ross - but for one thing: the assumption that there is indeed the generic category “the religious”, of which Xty happens to be just another example.  Actually, in the recent literature (e.g. Gavin D’Costa), we have had to conclude that even this notion of “the religions/religious” is a specifically laden western one.  For how we in the West have gone about viewing “human religiosity” is not necessarily at all the way say they do in China or India.  True; there has been considerable cross-fertilization across the globe nowadays.  But for all that, our world-view just ain’t theirs!

In which case, questions re “truth claims” have to be even more “scientific” - which is to say, a posteriori, arising out of our having examined each and every major approach from within and without.  Once more, this why Alister McGrath’s “project” is so powerful.  It provides the legitimate means both of remaining within a given tradition - which necessarily we all need to be as created human beings (which very comment is itself “traditional”!) - and of evaluating other traditions via a specific trans-traditional form of engagement.  I.e. while presenting one’s own ‘perspective’, its particular ethos and world-view, as we encounter ‘reality’ with all its particulars, can this very ‘perspective’ be such that it offers sufficient explanatory power of those differences its encounters both between and within the perspectives of others - Chinese, Indian, whatever?  And granted too that all such explanatory ‘theorising’ is provisional; yet the very human search for meaning and identity requires formal degrees of settled ‘closure’.  McGrath is offering his renewed version of ‘natural theology’ as just such a claimant, with sufficient power and creativity, I suggest.

But this is to go beyond now his Introduction, and into his three volume work, A Scientific Theology (2001/2/3).  Enjoy again!

March 1, 8:25 pm | [comment link]
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