Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture to the science faculty at Regensburg (12 Sept. 2006) stirred up a lot of controversy, which unfortunately obscured the point of his talk on “Faith, Reason and the University”.   His topic echoed the question posed by Tertullian some 1800 years ago- “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[1] Tertullian’s point was that philosophy can be a tool of heresy, as Paul warns against: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe,? and not according to Christ.” [Col. 2:8].

Temple of Hephaestes, AthensWith respect to the Pope’s address to the scientific community at the university we might rephrase the question as, “What indeed has Regensburg to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what can science and philosophy have to do with faith?  While the admonitions of Paul and Tertullian with respect to heretical philosophies remain perennially valid, there are indeed a lot of reasons for the Pope to invite faith into a dialog with science and philosophy which is not heretical.  The reason is reason itself.  The academic disciplines share reason with faith.  Reason as a whole is part of the creation established and sustained by God.  Thus the reasonableness of faith, and reasons for having faith in reason at all, are foundational for  all intellectual pursuits.  Science and faith are naturally brought into dialog by their shared desire to understand the creation.  As Colin Gunton reminds us:

Christianity is a philosophical faith, at least in the respect that in its main streams it has never renounced the conceptual task: the task of making clear in what manner its gospel is true, and true in the same sense that other things are true-for example the concepts and formulae in which natural scientists give accounts of their discoveries.[2]

The need for this dialog becomes obvious when we face the big questions of life which science fails to address:  ethics and value, human experience and meaning.  This is why I see ethics at the heart of the matter when it comes to the dialog between science and faith.  This is the realm in which Athens and Regensburg each have something to do with Jerusalem – of course there is little gained from dialog with heretical philosophies, as Tertullian warned against; but rather, the value comes from an openness to seek the whole realm of reason by every gift of intellect and every discipline of study that God has given us.

Benedict XVI notes two errors which can derail this dialog – it can fail either by sliding into a subjectivism which leads to “sheer impenetrable voluntarism”, or by falling into the trap of “the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable.”[3]    Thus, the twin perils which threaten the integration of faith and reason are voluntarism on the one hand, and empiricism on the other.  Dialog between faith and science collapses when either of these ‘~isms’ prevails, because neither of them can sustain the wholeness of reason.

Likewise, our ethics also collapses if we ever base moral knowledge on either voluntarism or empiricism; neither of these can bear the weight of ethics.  We seek therefore an approach to ethics that validates both the internal reality of personal experience, and the external reality of the created order.  This tension between the internal and external aspects of reality lies at the heart of evangelical ethics. 


[1] Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, vii (“On the prescription of heretics”).  This passage continues: “What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?”[2] Colin Gunton, Act & Being, (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 21.

[3] “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, lecture at University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006.

 The Economist (22/03/2008) reports that the 2-million-Euro European scientific collaboration known as “Explaining Religion” is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. Scholars from 14 universities will collaborate on the 3-year project. Why? “Religion cries out for a biological explanation,” declares The Economist.putting God to the test?

Denis Alexander spoke recently at the University of St Andrews on the topic of science and religion, and posed some challenging questions for the scientific study of religion:

So how do we go about the process of comparing rival metaphysical beliefs? In science you can do very specific experiments to get precisely the data you need in order to decide whether your theory is correct or not. But what happens when we’re looking for coherence in response to the bigger questions of life: why are we here? Does life have any meaning? Is there a God?[1]

The bigger questions seem to suggest there are limits to what science can study. I wonder how the scientists on the “Explaining Religion” project address these limits in their work? If they are trying to submit the creator God to inspection via their laboratories they may be disappointed.  The desire to study the physical operation of the human mind is well founded, but that is far different from studying the relationship of the human person with a living God. Hence, the modern interest in the “mind/body problem” brings science and theology into dialog in exciting new venues.

One interesting experiment reported in The Economist subjected Christians and non-Christians to PET brain scans while they each recited the 23rd Psalm. Interestingly, the results surprised the researchers. The experiment indicated the main difference in the mental function of the subjects was that the Christians’ brains demonstrated “increased activity in three areas of the frontal and parietal cortex”, while the control groups’ brains did not. These are the areas of the brain associated with rational thought.

I suggest there are several ways to “explain” this outcome. One explanation would be to say that since rational thought is a positive contribution to survival of the species, there must be some evolutionary advantage to religion, since it seems to promote rational thought, and presumably the development of the frontal and parietal cortex. On the other hand, it’s possible that such an explanation is a tautology based on the fideistic belief that since we have survived as a species, the patterns exhibited in our biology must have contributed as positive reinforcements to our survival. An alternative explanation, albeit one that is perhaps untestable in the lab, is that the thoughts of the 23rd Psalm are true.


[1] Denis Alexander is a molecular biochemist and Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.  On 27 February 2008 he gave a public lecture titled, “Has Science Made Religion Redundant?”   http://www.jamesgregory.org/