Larry Chapp is a former professor of theology at DeSales University. He is presently busy starting a Catholic Worker farm. Mr. Chapp is a longtime veteran of religion and science dialogues. His book The God of Covenant and Creation is one of the most significant recent interventions in science and religion debates. He is also the editor of How von Balthasar Changed My Mind: 15 Scholars Reflect on the Meaning of Balthasar for Their Own Work. His The God Who Speaks: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Theology of Revelation is unfortunately out of print, but available in most major libraries.
The following dialogue issues from questions raised by my religion and science book list.
Rabelaisian Catholicism: Where does the friction between Christianity and the scientific method lie?
Larry Chapp: In answering your first question I have to first begin by asking what you mean by "friction." There are two ways, it seems to me, that there is friction—a false friction and a genuine one. The false friction arises when God's causation is metaphysically misunderstood and reduced to the same level as worldly causation, albeit as its highest exemplar. When this happens God's causation is viewed as competitive to natural causation, so you get the ridiculous spectacle of religious people feeling the need to debunk evolution in order to give God something to do. And scientistic types like Richard Dawkins think of divine causation in the same way so they also contribute to the problem.
But a proper metaphysical understanding of God's causation does not view it as a physical force, as in physics. Thus, God is not a "supreme Being" at the top of a great chain of being with his causation simply being the most powerful force among all of the forces. Rather, a proper view sees God's causation as the grounding source for all being as such, the reason why there is something rather than nothing, and the continuation of finite being in existence through God's ongoing grounding of all that is.
God is not a noun but a verb so to speak and all of creation is precisely "natural" insofar as, paradoxically, it participates in God's Being through a relation of dependence. Thus, in classical Catholic thinking, it is stated that God is the "primary cause" (he is the source of being as such) and he has gifted creation with its own causative powers which we call "secondary causes." God is active in all secondary causes as their ground, but God is not some Divine tinker-toy maker in the sky constantly fiddling with things in an "intrusive" way—intrusive here defined as, once again, intervening with nature in a competitive manner. Of course there has also been a false friction created by the inanities of biblical literalism and young earth creationism and all such pseudo-theological problems.
However, there is also a sense in which there has been a legitimate friction between the faith and the scientific method.
This friction has its roots in the peculiar history of the rise of modern science. At first, science was simply "natural philosophy" and viewed itself as the science of secondary causes. Indeed, it tended to follow the Augustinian/Thomistic view that science was the handmaiden of theology and was there to illuminate the beauty of God's creation. It is difficult to gauge exactly when this shifted as well as to analyze all of the intricate reasons for why it happened. But certainly by the time we reach the 17th century and the revolution created by Newton, Galileo et. al. there has certainly been a shift from viewing science as studying secondary causes. The focus is now on mathematical measurement and quantification. The four Aristotelian causes have been jettisoned in favor of a single notion of cause as "force." It is a mistake to say, as many do, that they kept Aristotle's notion of efficient causation. They did not, since in Aristotle's system efficient causation is only what it is in conjunction with the other three causes. To eliminate them is to eliminate efficient causation as well (as I think Hume understood). What we were left with then is simply matter in motion and in interaction with other forms of matter in an extrinsicist relation of outside force. Aristotle's notion of causation, and hence of Thomas, was that entities are intrinsically related to one another on the level of metaphysical being insofar as they all participate in God's intelligibility. Thus, in interacting with one another there is a collusion and a participation with one another in an intrinsic way. But in the new science it is all just brute force, measurable mathematically
The modern scientific method did not have to evolve this way, but it did, and insofar as this is its sole notion of causality there will be friction with the faith. Modern science speaks of its method as "methodological naturalism" and by that it means it seeks answers rooted solely in this hyper-empiricist notion of causation as force. But the problem with this is that it easily bleeds into metaphysical naturalism, and often does, all the while claiming it is not. But it is a de facto metaphysical naturalism insofar as it refuses to consider any deeper metaphysical forms of causation in nature other than the notion of cause as force. Notice how, for example, when debating human embryonic stem cell research, many people in the US Senate said that they wanted to base their decision on "science" and not on theologically grounded notions of embryonic personhood. But this presumes the very thing it needs to prove. Namely, that the only proper way to describe what an embryo "is" is to catalogue its attributes using only one notion of causation—that of empirical force in the interactions of the entity. But, in point of fact, if science still viewed itself as the discipline that studies secondary causes, then it would remain open to the deeper realities at play and make much more humble claims about what it is it is describing. It would say: Here is the biology of an embryo. But science by itself cannot answer what an embryo "is." For that you need deeper resources. But that is not what happened. What an embryo "is" was reduced to its empirical biology and that was that. And by the way, it is even bad science to reduce an embryo in this way since it ignores the role played by the category of "organism" in the definition of any biological entity. But that is another conversation for another day.
Rabelaisian Catholicism: Could you delve into what you mean by calling God a verb instead of a noun? How might this way of conceiving God get around some of the problems you've mentioned?
What I mean by that is that God is not a static, delimited, "entity" that we can give a proper name to like we do other finite objects. God is "pure act," existence as such. The Bible hints at this when it calls God a "living God" and not just some kind of an impersonal cosmic force. Etienne Gilson and the other existential Thomists of the mid-20th century referred to God as the "act" of Being and thereby placed at the heart of our view of Divinity a notion of dynamism. God is indeed immutable but is so not as an infinite stasis, but as an infinite motion.
This helps us overcome a view of God's causality as competitive with worldly causality precisely insofar as all finite beings participate in this divine "act." In God Being as act is self-subsistent, whereas in creatures it is subsistent (dependent). When God acts "in the world" therefore he does so not as an "entity" whose "force" enters into nature to move it around. Rather, God is always already the most intimate thing in nature. Indeed, as Augustine said, God is more intimate to me than I am to myself.
And it is in this deep level of existential intimacy that God interfaces with creation, not as a foreigner who comes to plunder, but as the very act of Being that makes nature, nature. The paradox, of course, resides then in the fact that nature is most "natural" the more it comes into contact with God. The more nature moves toward God the more it becomes nature. This is also rooted in Chalcedonian christology with its notion of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ. The humanity of Christ does not become less human just because Jesus was also God. Indeed, he becomes more human, the most "human" human being who ever lived. It took a lot of early Church councils and arguments to get beyond the impasse imposed on the theological structure by Greek philosophical notions of immutability and Plato"s "divided line" between the world of God and the world of materiality. But in the end what they achieved was the view I have just outlined.