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Clayton challenges the distance between religion, science

Laurinburg, N.C. – Dr. Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, challenged the common view of religion and science being at odds during his presentation Oct. 20 as a part of the John Calvin McNair Lecture on Science and Theology hosted by St. Andrews Presbyterian College.

The lecture was presented to more than 70 members of the community for free during the annual event.

Titled Living Toward an Open Future: What are the Theological Conditions for Hope in an Age of Science? Clayton focused his lecture on the great divide between scientists and theologians on the future.

“It is one of the hardest issues,” Clayton said. “How you conceive the future is basic to the Christian faith. The notion of some sort of hope is central to Christianity. The question is what happens when you link to a scientific view?”

Clayton shared some thoughts on eschatology, the Christian view of last things, in comparison with the scientific view of the future through physics.

“You can begin with a commitment to science and rewrite Christianity so there are no claims to the future,” he said. “There has been a major movement in recent years that offered Christianity as living a decent life, committed to service and a certain political view. Some find this valuable. I worry about those Christians whose existence is nasty, brutish and short. We’re the lucky ones. I find it deeply disturbing to say to those people that you can live an ethical and political life and don’t need hope after death. It won’t work for me to say let’s let the future hope go.”

In sharing theories of contemporary science, he shared three possibilities for the universe – continued expansion, collapse, or infinite expansion preventing the continuation of carbon based life.

To bring the arguments closer, he shared theories by Freeman Dyson, Frank Tipler, Teilhard de Chardin and Simon Conway Morris.

“I report myself a skeptic,” Clayton said. “I feel like they are meddling with the science and that the Christian hope is also cheapened. I lost the woman who I called my German grandmother two days ago. Her husband predeceased her by six months and I hope that they found each other and remain together in God’s embrace.”

To unify the dialogue between religion and science, Clayton proposed a step backward to prevent the category mistake seen in other theories.

“These ideas cannot be brought into any serious dialogue unless one somehow finds a way to build a foundation for that dialogue into one’s basic understanding of the natural world from the outset,” Clayton said.

He proposed four areas that he feels support Christian beliefs without challenging basic scientific theories.

“The universe is understood from the beginning as contingent,” he said. “God brought about the universe but he didn’t have to. That doesn’t challenge the beliefs of how the universe formed for the scientists but is a very important piece for Christians.”

The second statement shared was “all natural regularities are understood as products of God’s nature and creative intentions.”

“It is how I understand the universe and doesn’t challenge the theories and beliefs of the scientific world,” Clayton said. “Scientists agree that there are patterns, or regularities, in the universe.”

The third statement, “natural laws describe patterns in the physical universe; they do not prescribe them,” continued along the same line of thinking.

“Natural laws are descriptions of how things are,” he said. “They do not prescribe how they came to be.”

The final statement becomes the possible point of departure from Clayton’s argument. “Indeed, that final stage may have already been manifested within the universe, even if only in an anticipatory way.”\

“Christian thinkers must diverge from the naturalist or atheist thinkers at some point,” Clayton said. “It is tempting for Christians to offer specifics on how the final future will take shape. But we do not have to have a concrete position on that future. We can not falsify the science and not offer concrete positions and still have it be sufficient enough to bring that future hope.”

Clayton received his B.A. summa cum laude from Westmont College before going on to receive an M.A. from Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a second M.A. from Yale University before completing an M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale in Philosophy and Religious Studies.

The McNair lecture was established by the 1857 will of John Calvin McNair who asked that “the object of which lecture(s) shall be to show the mutual bearing of Science and Theology upon each other….”

This is the fourth lecture hosted by St. Andrews, with Dr. Owen Gingerich, the Rev. Dr. Nancey Murphy and Dr. Robert J. Russell presenting the previous lectures. The series was previously hosted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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