Who Says Theology Isn’t Science? A Reflection on the Reductionist Definition of the Word, "Science"

A few months back I blogged on the interplay between Theology, Philosophy and “science.” A reader wrote in the combox a mild rebuke of me, for using the word “Science” in a reductionist sense to mean, merely the physical sciences. He went on to insist that theology and philosophy ARE sciences, older and frankly more developed in many ways, than the natural or physical sciences, (whose fundamental theories still shift dramatically every few decades).  Further, theology and philosophy have served as the intellectual foundation for the scientific method and what has come to be called the natural or physical sciences.

I appreciated his rebuke and though I cannot remember exactly where to find it, I have thought a lot about it. Indeed, we have allowed the word “science, ” a word so respected by the modern world, to mean only the physical sciences, and many have tolerated others calling Philosophy and Theology “unscientific.”

Now the word “science” comes from the Latin “Scientia” meaning “knowledge.” For Aristotle scientific knowledge was considered to be a body of reliable knowledge that can be logically and rationally explained. Until the 2oth Century “science” was understood in this broader sense. Hence both Philosophy and Theology involved a body of knowledge that was a tested and reliable way of navigating reality, and can be rationally set forth as reasonable. Both sciences built a vast body of knowledge and a careful discipline of distinctions and delineations that set forth a framework in which to see and know the world.  (It will be admitted that, as in any science, there can be rather wacky and strange fringes that developed and were later discarded or critiqued within the discipline.  But this is true of the natural sciences too, that have also had their share of strange and exotic theories that were later and largely set aside).

In terms of theology, Faith is a way of knowing. I come to know certain things because God reveals them. Faith is a way of knowing based on a trust that God exists, and is both truthful and accurate in what he says. But the natural sciences also put a kind of faith in the reliability of the senses and what they reveal. By accepting the revelation that comes from God, I come to know many things.

Now therefore we must be insist, the Judeo-Christian theological tradition is a careful, smart and time tested way of knowing that extends in its roots back some 5,000 years. It is no mere whim. Any serious look at the Catholic faith will show forth a theology that is careful, nuanced, thoughtful, time-tested, and well rooted in both Scripture and ancient tradition. Just a five minute glance at the Summa Theologica will show this. One need not agree with the faith or even be a believer in God, but only fair-minded to see that there has been a careful and thoughtful and disciplined reflection over the centuries, and an accumulated body of knowledge that even now continues to deepen.

As a personal testimony I must say that I have come to have a deep reverence for the faith that I did not have as a youth and college student. But entering upon the study of theology I came to discover and respect the careful, thought and method that underlies the Catholic Faith. And I believe what I have been taught not merely because it is taught by authority, but also on account of the evidence I see for its truth and reliability. In the laboratory of my own life I have tested the teachings of the Scriptures and the Catholic faith and found them to be both true and reliable. I also find great credibility in the fact that these teachings stretch back to Christ and the Apostles, and even further into Jewish antiquity, and have been carefully tested by generations, and handed on intact for 2000 years of the Church’s history.

Hence the science of Catholic Theology is a careful, tested, and reliable way of knowing for me and it fully qualifies for the term “science” since it is a body of reliable knowledge that can be logically and rationally explained. To be sure, there are certain mysteries beyond simple explanation, but this is true in the natural sciences as well.

A few final thoughts on this from an excellent article written Matthew Hanley  over at The Catholic Thing. What I present here are excerpts. But you are encouraged to read the fuller article by clicking on the link. A few minor thoughts from me are in red.

Science and love don’t ordinarily seem to go together. Love we tend to associate with feeling, attraction, and passion – not exactly the stuff of science, which goes with reason, empiricism, and progress. But love as science is not an unfounded mystical metaphor or eccentricity.

One of the passages in Story of a Soul, the autobiography St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day is today, that has most struck me is when she recounted coming across the words Jesus spoke to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque: “I want to make you read in the book of life, wherein is contained the science of LOVE.” This made quite an impact on Thérèse: “The science of Love, ah, yes, this word resounds sweetly in the ear of my soul, and I desire only this science.” Her famous vocation of love was crystallizing.

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, also wrote that “love is a science, a knowledge, and we lack it.”

Not long before St. Thérèse’s time, the concept known as positivism, which holds that no sciences exist except those that study the phenomena of the natural world, had begun to gain traction. The French philosopher Auguste Comte [argued] that humanity was entering into an era in which scientific knowledge alone is fit to replace all other forms of knowledge, such as “primitive” theological knowledge or even philosophical knowledge. Yes, here is where the old synthesis began to break down.

The Enlightenment [had] also solidified the idea that science should supersede traditional moral and ethical systems, which could, after all, easily be dismissed as “unscientific.”

Science has enriched our world in important ways. But you don’t have to be a cradle Catholic to perceive that playing the science card – in contemporary bioethical debates, for example – is a manipulative, self-exculpatory means of attempting to secure carte blanche approval for blazing any trail you wish. Soloviev recognized, as too few do today, what was at stake in relegating religious and philosophical knowledge to the periphery where they are not allowed to inform how scientific advances should be interpreted: “Carried to its logical end, the principal of utilitarianism is obviously equivalent to the complete negation of ethics.” Benedict XVI said virtually the exact same thing just last year.

Only the “science of love”, which Benedict described as “the highest form of science,” can protect mankind from the corrosive effects of today’s default (utilitarian) mentality because – as Karol Wojtyla put it in his 1960 book Love and Responsibility – “only love can preclude the use of one person by another.” A magnificent insight.

This type of terminology, I think, ….invites us to revisit just what we mean by science – and by love, which John Paul II called “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” Exactly, the word “science” cannot and should not be reduced to merely the natural or physical sciences, or merely to the empirical method.

The saints all pursue their own diverse vocations of love by following the “scientific” method Jesus counseled: discite a me — “learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” [1]

Painting above is of St Thomas Aquinas surrounded by other Doctors of the Chruch

I have posted this video of Fr. Robert Barron before. In it he speaks of the modern error of “scientism” – The view that reality is restricted to what the empirical  sciences can explain.

13 Replies to “Who Says Theology Isn’t Science? A Reflection on the Reductionist Definition of the Word, "Science"”

  1. Physical sciences.
    Political economics.
    Human reason.

    You’ll never hear those terms again…most of the time, anyway.

  2. A terrific post, Monsignor. It’s very frustrating to me to live in a world where these ideas are not well understood. More frustrating than this, though, is the reflexive ridicule and scorn with which so many non-believers meet them. It is so irritating. They will treat you as though you are stupid for presenting, for example, the suggestion that the natural sciences are actually a kind of philosophy in themselves, and moreover depend upon the larger philosophical ‘sciences’, but this of course only reveals their own stupidity, a kind of stupidity that is of course self-imposed. It’s sheer bigotry, actually. The sort of conversations I’m talking about are those in which your opponent knows in advance you are a believer, or deduces this from what you say, and thereafter rejects whatever you have to say as a matter of habit. If it’s Christian, they think, it’s wrong, and there’s just no getting through to them. I’ve always marveled at their narrow-mindedness; are they so closed to all the magnificent insights men discovered prior to our modern era? Even this one fact, that philosophy underlies the natural sciences, could open, once accepted, so many new doors to them, and reveal to them horizons they had not even imagined possible. How sad that they miss so much – how constricted and suffocating is their small world.

    I know that many atheists complain of the narrow-mindedness of Christians, and I have certainly see Christians say some stupid things in defense of their faith. (For example, attempting to argue that we should believe in God because the Bible says so… well, that’s not a good place to start with a non-believer! Haha.) We are not great evangelists, many of us. I’m not so great at it myself. Then, too, Christianity takes a certain open-mindedness and patience before one can begin to plumb the depth of its insights, a provisional faith, and a willingness to test its lessons in the laboratory of life. But this is no different in any way than any other enormous body of knowledge. And almost every atheist I have ever encountered is so militant in his views, so dogmatic, so trenchant, so fevered, so angry, so argumentative, so antagonistic, so sarcastic, so full of his own certainty (a key item here I believe) —- that he simply stands no chance of rewarding himself with the incredible richness of Christianity. Was there not a time when spiritual traditions were respected, if for no other reason than it was understood that they contained precious and hard-won lessons about life’s highest art, namely the art of being human? So sad, what we have lost today. So sad, that our world is setting itself up for a hard failure that will only force it to re-learn what could have been passed on to the next generation with relative ease and composure. And for me, as a believer, so incredibly frustrating and irritating.

    Anyway, thanks again, Monsignor.

  3. What is this habitual need on the part of so many atheists to fight with Christians, to take a hostile-by-default posture toward Christianity? You cannot learn in a fighting mode. And if any one of them thinks he will divest me of all that I love and have learned through Christianity simply because he acts like a shameless jerk, well — let him waste his time and energy because it will avail him nothing where I am concerned.

  4. I actually teach at one of the smaller Division 1A schools in “the Department of Physics and Physical Sciences”. Take my word for it, those of us in physics and chemistry do use the term to distinguish ourselves from the “biological sciences” (which are also what you would call physical sciences, but which are qualitatively different from physics and chemistry) and the “social sciences”.

    As for theology, my biggest gripe is that so often theology departments do not teach theology. It would be thought a strange thing if a chemistry professor thought there was no such thing as an acid or if an astronomer thought there was no such thing as a star, but it’s not hard to find prominent academic theologians who think that there is no such thing as God. On top of that, I get the impression that most theology departments make no pretense of teaching what theology is true, but rather they teach the history of theology. So they might teach that Aquinas said THIS about the Eucharist, but Luther said THAT, and Calvin said SOME OTHER THING. When this is how academic theologians talk, it’s understandable that few people would think of theology as a science.

    The physical sciences have a standard outside the scientists themselves: nature, as revealed through observation and experiment. Theology has a standard outside the theologians themselves: God, as revealed through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Once theology decided, perhaps as a part of the Peace of Westphalia, to abandon its outside standard, it became the sorry subject we see today.

  5. Wonderful! Now I have another “weapon” in my arsenal when confronted with scientism.
    I usually say that the Bible, its content, theology, and philosophy and the Church is a comprehensive body of knowledge. It is knowable to anyone and you don’t have to have personal faith to attain this knowledge. Only those who have a fundamental understanding of this knowledge can talk about it with credibility. Without this knowledge all you do is make a colossal fool of yourself regardless of how high a pinnacle a person has reached in another discipline.
    Now, thanks to your wonderful reflection, I can start out and ask my challenger if he knows what the word “science” means and weave it in. 🙂

    1. Careful how you phrase that, Kerstin, so that it doesn’t sound like Sola Scriptura. We need Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium to correctly interpret the Bible, but we also need natural knowledge. For example, a good Bible atlas helps a great deal, but it requires modern cartography, not divine revelation. Likewise, it is very profitable to learn from archaeology. Would Abraham have appeared as remarkable to his contemporaries as he does to us? In what ways did worship in the Tabernacle and the Temple conform to what the Israelites saw from their Canaanite and Egyptian neighbors, and in what ways was it different? Etc.

      1. Howard,
        good point!
        Actually, one of the many reasons I became a Catholic is the inclusion of Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium. One time before my conversion I pointed out to my then pastor that I thought one of the biggest weakenesses in mainstream Protestantism and its decline into relativism is the lack of the equivalent of a Magisterium. He politely dismissed me by saying he would have to give this some thought.

  6. Hi Monsignor Pope,

    I met a gentleman from Scotland and the recent Catholic New Media Conference in Kansas City this past weekend who has an entire website and poscast devoted to the Catholic Faith and Science who comes from a scientific background:


    I will also resending him some of your blog entries on this subject.

    God Bless,

  7. Monsignor, it is providential that you should post on this topic, as lately I have been wondering something….do you think it is possible for someone to understand theology just by reading a few theology books? What I mean is that there are not a few laymen who are outside the Church in independent chapels that consider themselves experts on theology and canon law yet have never studied it at a Catholic university.

    I guess my question is: is it possble to acquire proficiency in theology without actually studying it a Catholic university?

    1. If you can find a good professor, he’ll teach you better than a book alone could. Unfortunately, there are many “Catholic” universities that seem to enjoy flaunting their dissidence. You’d be better off with good books than going to a dissident university.

  8. A refreshing post. I also fail to understand why “atheists” fight those of faith so hard. There is no reason why science has to compete with or supplant or be counter to theology, faith and religion. Many atheists cite religion as the root of so much conflict. True. But only because people run religions, not faiths. And science has caused as much hardship and suffering through its dogmatism and “blind faith” in experimentation for its own sake.

    Thank you!

  9. Hi, I just found your blog threw thepulp.it and I must say it’s Awesome!! =D

    / a catholic from Sweden

  10. “In terms of theology, Faith is a way of knowing. I come to know certain things because God reveals them. Faith is a way of knowing based on a trust that God exists, and is both truthful and accurate in what he says. But the natural sciences also put a kind of faith in the reliability of the senses and what they reveal. By accepting the revelation that comes from God, I come to know many things.”

    This passage especially stood out to me. I believe that I may better understand. We can rely on our senses, but these can be fooled. We can rely even more on God, Who never lies nor can He be mislead, since He is all-knowing.

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