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Unisa Press

science and theology since copernicus

The search for understanding

Peter Barrett

The story of the fascinating debate between the natural sciences and Christian belief. It surveys the rise of modern science and its main course over the past four centuries; describes some of the associated theological questions and background thought; outlines the present discourse, and suggests a way to place the world-picture of science within a wider context of meaning and value.

from the Preface:

I write as a retired physicist and member of the Anglican Church, with a long standing interest in theology and in the missiological and ecumenical aspects of Christianity. Of course, one’s background and experience colour one’s approach and choice of material, but I hope that there is at least a coherence and unity in this version of a story that needs to be told more widely and developed further. I hope, too, that other scientists will enjoy as much as I have an encounter with some of the historical and philosophical aspects of science that we so often ignore, and that fellow Christians will relax and realise how unthreatening, even enriching, are scientific ideas to the heart of the Christian faith!

I have taken the liberty of bringing into the last part of the book some of my own thinking about a trinitarian cosmology – a world-view which is concerned with the search for the transcendental values of truth, goodness and beauty. The search for beauty (often neglected by theologians) forms a key part of the human quest for life in all its fullness and is therefore, perhaps, a place where people can affirm and make common cause with those of other cultures and beliefs.

This book surveys key developments in the natural sciences over the past 450 years and describes the main associated theological questions. It then provides an outline of the present science-theology discourse and suggests how a scientific understanding of the world may be placed within a broad theistic scheme – one that is concerned with the meaning, value and destiny of this richly varied creation.

Modern science has developed in three distinct historical phases: (i) the Scientific Revolution (16th and 17th centuries), (ii) the rise of geology and Darwin’s theory of evolution (mostly 19th century), and (iii) the natural sciences (especially physics and biology) of the 20th century. The first two phases are described in terms of the work of leading scientific figures, from Copernicus to Newton and from Linnaeus to Darwin. An account of 20th century science is then given through brief descriptions of quantum physics, cosmology and the study of complex systems (physical and biological), showing something of the vast spread in the scales of distance, time and complexity. It is the story of an evolving universe that seems remarkably suitable as ‘the cradle of human existence’ and surprisingly accessible to the human mind in terms of mathematics.

>The scene is thus set for an overview of the lively science-theology discourse of the past half-century. This begins with a discussion of three epistemological approaches (especially the critical realism usually assumed in the natural sciences and systematic theology) and a comparison of the ideas of three leading scientist-theologians on the question of divine action in the world. The book then points to the challenge faced by theology, as in earlier centuries, to act as the great integrating discipline, drawing upon the full range of knowledge to formulate a grand narrative of the evolving multi-levelled cosmos. As a way of responding to that challenge, an axiomatic framework is proposed, based on that fundamental tenet of Trinitarian theology, the kenosis of God. This is then linked to the traditional triad of transcendental values – truth, goodness, and beauty – especially beauty, the quality so underplayed in both theological thought and modern society.

(Item 6444) soft cover 2000 200 pp ISBN 1 86888 148 2 

SA price R90,00
Other countries in Africa R114,00
Overseas US$20.90 or GB£13.60

Comments :

"Peter Barrett gives us a fascinating and detailed account of the history of the interaction between science and theology and provides an assessment of the contemporary situation. This is a book that many will find helpful."
John Polkinghorne KBE, FRS (Cambridge, UK)

"This sprightly volume, filled with biographical vignettes and personal insights, provides a reader-friendly introduction to the history and philosophy of science and religion."
Ronald Numbers (History of Science and Medicine, U Wisconsin)

"This promises to be a valuable addition to the growing body of literature on theology and science today. Not only are the contents well-organized and intelligently planned, but both the historical over-views and discussions of contemporary issues offer indepth arguments and crystal clear information. The author discusses philosophical and theological matters with integrity and nuance, ending with a proposal for a particular Christian perspective that comes across as highly plausible and challenging."
Wentzel van Huyssteen (Theology & Science,Princeton Theological Seminary)

"Here is a concise and up to date introduction to the longlasting dialogue between science and theology. Balanced in its presentations and sensitive to the cultural conditions of the present-day discussion, this book helps us to understand how the attraction of 'beauty on every scale' can play a unifying role in the wide-ranging search for wisdom and knowledge."
Niels Gregersen (Systematic Theology, U Aarhus)  

The author is a former associate professor in physics; co-organizer of the SA Science & Religion Forum, and a recipient of a 1996 Templeton Foundation award for a course in science & religion for history majors.

His papers in the Science & Religion field are:
'Beauty in Physics and Theology',  J Theology for Southern Africa, March 1996,  no. 94, pp 65-78
' Natural Theology in a Pluralist Society',  Scriptura (Stellenbosch) no. 61, 1997, pp 167-178
  'The Gospel and Western Culture: on the ideas of Lesslie Newbigin' Missionalia (Pretoria), vol 27, no. 1, 1999, pp 62-72
  'Toward a Trinitarian Theory of Everything',  Religion & Theology (Brill, Netherlands), vol 7, no. 4, 2000, pp 355-378.


Historical phases and roles of Natural Science
and Natural Theology

The Scientific Revolution

Scientific Revolution and its background
Leading figures: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo,Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, Newton
The significance of the Scientific Revolution

Natural History

Early Natural History and Deism
Leading figures: Linnaeus, Buffon, Lamarck, Cuvier, Hutton, Buckland, Sedgwick, Lyell
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
Controversies over Darwin’s Theory
The Elaboration of Darwin’s Theory

The Evolving Universe

Classical Physics
The New Physics: Particles, Cosmology,Complexity Theory, Theory of Everything
Features of the Evolving Universe:Anthropic Principle, Chance & Necessity,Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics, The Hierarchy of Complexity

The Present Science-Theology Discourse
The Challenge of New Knowledge
Epistemic Aspects
Divine Temporality/Action/Kenosis
A Theistic Cosmology
A Trinitarian Cosmology
Beginning of Humanity/Fulfilment of Universe
The Doctrine of Creation in the light of Beauty
Beauty on Every Scale

Future Agenda